F. Dale Lolley Column

Fine-tuning of defense is all Steelers need

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PITTSBURGH – Sunday night is exactly what has been so maddeningly crazy about the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers.


The much-maligned offense has put together a string of games that we haven’t seen in some time, scoring 20 or more points in seven consecutive games – it’s longest such streak since 2009.


And yet it has been the defense, which for such a long time was a constant brick wall, that has continually let the team down this season.


Missed tackles, missed assignments and missed opportunities have plagued coordinator Dick LeBeau’s proud unit.


But, at least for this night, against the AFC North-leading Bengals, the Steelers put everything together for a half.


The special-teams unit scored one touchdown and accounted for another when Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber dropped a snap and was tackled at the Bengals’ 1-yard line.


The defense was stifling.


And the offense was incredibly efficient.


It really makes you wonder where this kind of effort has been all season.


The Steelers have had some solid games, but nothing to this extent. And it gives a glimmer of hope that they’ll be a better team in 2014.


The offense, led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, should return largely intact. Sure, the Steelers will likely bid goodbye to wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders,and Jerricho Cotchery. But Pittsburgh drafted Markus Wheaton with Sanders’ impending free agency in mind, and it’s likely they will be able to re-sign Cotchery, if they so choose. Cotchery likes it in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers like the veteran leadership he brings to their locker room.


It’s on the defensive side where we’ll see some major changes.


The Steelers are currently over the salary cap – estimated to be set at between $126 and $128 million – by about $7 million.


But they have an easy cut to make to save money with Levi Brown, acquired in a midseason trade with Arizona, accounting for more than $6 million.


Several veterans – safety Ryan Clark and defensive end Brett Keisel among them – aren’t under contract for 2014 and could be playing their final games for the Steelers. Keisel hasn’t played much in the past month because of a foot injury.


The biggest question for the Steelers is what to do at outside linebacker?


Breakout star Jason Worilds will be be an unrestricted free agent. After being burned by Keenan Lewis, who waited until his final season here before putting together a solid campaign, the Steelers aren’t about to go through the same thing with Worilds.


Worilds and defensive end Cameron Heyward have been the Steelers’ two best defensive players for a large portion of the season. Pittsburgh isn’t about to allow Worilds to leave, and could use the franchise tag on him to assure that won’t happen.


It would be a costly move, one that would mean some other players – linebacker LaMarr Woodley, cornerback Ike Taylor or safety Troy Polamalu – might have to take pay cuts or be released, but in this instance, it would be worth it in the long term.


As we saw recently with San Diego winning at Denver, St. Louis beating New Orleans and Miami beating New England, there isn’t much difference between the haves and have nots in the NFL.


The Steelers are have nots right now. But they’re not as far away from being a solid team as many people think.


Today’s NFL is all about the offense, and the Steelers have finally figured that out. They’ve built an offense capable of competing on a weekly basis.


What they’re missing are a playmaker or two on defense. If they can find that in the offseason, they’ll be just fine.



F. Dale Lolley can be reached at dlolley@observer-reporter.com.


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