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Big Plays Keeping Big-Money Steelers Defense from Reaching Potential

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Pittsburgh Steelers Teryl Austin

Entering this season, the weight on the shoulders of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense was heavy. Dollar signs should yield one of the NFL’s best units — at least in theory. Expectations remain, which poses a challenge for the NFL’s most expensive group on that side of the football.

“To me, I don’t think the money and all that stuff and the expectations (matter),” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said earlier this week. “We just want to play well. And I think that, regardless of how much you’re getting paid, these guys have a lot of pride in being football players. They’ve earned the money … They just want to play well because they love the game.”

The secondary has struggled mightily, ranking second-to-last in passing yards allowed per game (272.1) entering Monday night’s clash at Indianapolis. The Steelers also teeter on the edge of the bottom fourth of the league in points allowed per game (24.4). The fact that the unit has been susceptible to splash plays hasn’t helped.

“There’s been a lot of times we’ve been in position to make the plays — and we’re not making the plays,” Austin said. “A lot of balls that a lot of the times go down as 50/50, we’re losing the majority of those … We can’t lose as many as we’re losing and that’s part of the reason we’re giving up so many plus-20 passes all year. If we want to give ourselves an opportunity to win, we’ve got to get those big plays off our tape.”

Practice reps are the best way to do that, he contends. However, it’s not easy to imitate the real thing.

“It’s hard to get, because you don’t know the exact angles you’re going to be coming to the ball, what the trajectory is, all those different things,” Austin said. “But, you just do the best you can in practice to get those type of throws … and have the guys play it and get after the ball that way.”

On the back end, the Steelers have tried “a little bit of everything,” Austin said. Zone concepts haven’t been as effective as the team would have liked. Neither have man-to-man nor any double coverage.

Would sending more guys at the quarterback help that?

“There’s times you need to bring some pressure, but I don’t think we’d abandon all the things that we think are solid, good defense,” Austin said. “We’ve just got to play those balls better. You can’t give up seven plus-20 (yard) passes a game and expect to win.”

Austin also shared his thoughts on moving Cameron Sutton into the slot and sliding James Pierre outside. Nothing is off the table.

“We’re looking at all the answers,” Austin said. “I know when we had a full complement of DBs, that was kind of our rotation on third down. As guys have been injured and guys have been out, we’ve been kind of trying to stick to a structured thing.”

According to Pro Football Reference, Sutton has been targeted 46 times, allowing completions on half of those occasions (50% completion percentage allowed). Quarterbacks have thrown Pierre’s way 17 times, hitting the mark on seven of them. Pierre’s 41.2% completion percentage allowed is the best of any Steelers defensive back.

Austin also has three capable, healthy safeties to work with — Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, and Demontae Kazee. The assistant coach expects to see them on the field together against teams who play more traditional sets.

“I think all three of those guys, they work well together,” Austin said. “I think they had a nice rapport. They did a good job when they were in there.”

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