MIRZA ZUKIC: You can pin the blame for this loss on the Steelers' defense
September 17, 2013 10:50 AM

We’ve all seen Ben Roethlisberger mature and develop as a person and a team leader in front of our eyes over the past few years, and we saw another example of that Monday night after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 20-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, when the veteran quarterback shouldered the blame for the latest defeat.

“The quarterback’s got to play better. And he will,” Roethlisberger said after the Steelers dropped to 0-2 following another listless offensive showing.

The Steelers’ QB won’t point fingers or call teammates out. Deserved or not, he’ll take the blame because he’s the leader of the team. He did it after last week’s loss to Tennessee, and he did it again Monday night.

It’s true he didn’t have a great game, despite throwing for 251 yards. A good chunk of that passing total — 64 yards — came on the final, inconsequential drive. He missed a handful of throws and overthrew a couple receivers.

But I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again: Roethlisberger deserves minimal blame.

The Steelers’ offensive struggles so far this season have been well-documented.

The offensive line can’t keep the heat off Roethlisberger, the running game is the worst in the NFL two weeks into the season, and Pittsburgh’s lack of a true No. 1 receiver is becoming more and more evident with every painful possession.

Clearly, the offense is a huge part of the problem in Pittsburgh. It’s hard to win at any level averaging fewer than 10 points per game.

But the defense deserves an equal share of the blame.

While the Steelers’ defenders like to point to the fact that their unit has finished No. 1 in the NFL in total defense each of the past two seasons, that’s a very deceiving statistic.

It’s based on total yardage allowed, which only says that the Steelers don’t allow teams to go up and down the field on them. That doesn’t always translate to winning football, especially when Pittsburgh’s offense struggles to crack the 200-yard mark.

What the Steelers’ defense sorely lacks — and has for the better part of the past two seasons — is turnovers and quarterback pressure.

In eight quarters this season, the Steelers have a big fat zero in the turnover category. Just last season, Pittsburgh ranked near the bottom of the NFL with only 20 forced turnovers, and four of those came in the regular-season finale against those loveable losers from Cleveland.

Similarly, the Steelers have one quarterback sack through the first two games.

Sacks kill drives, and they’re the next best thing to a turnover to stunt an opponent’s momentum. The Steelers aren’t getting sacks either, which explains all the short third downs the Titans and Bengals had in the first two weeks.

For as hard as it is for a team to win with an inefficient offense, it’s that much harder when the defense isn’t contributing in those key areas.

The Steelers have a bunch of cerebral players on their defense who play their positions well and understand the complex system they play within.

But they lack a true ballhawk.

Troy Polamalu might have been considered that at one time in his career, but that element of his game seems to have been lost to age. Since the Steelers Super Bowl season in 2010, Polamalu has three interceptions —all of them against, you guessed it, the Browns — and he hasn’t forced a fumble since 2010.

He’s still a fine player, but he’s not a difference maker like he was in his younger days.

That was one of the reasons the organization was so high on rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones. In addition to being a physical specimen, he showed a knack for causing turnovers in his college career, and added to that reputation against second-stringers in the preseason.

But he hasn’t done it in the regular season yet, and neither has anybody else.

And that seems to be the difference between the Steelers’ defense and some of the best defensive units in the NFL at the moment. Other teams manage to find a way to tip a ball and intercept it or cause a fumble, the Steelers don’t.

Take for example both of Roethlisberger’s interceptions this season. Both come after one of his receivers tipped the ball into the air. And in both instances, an opposing defender made a difficult diving catch to give his team the ball.

When the Steelers tip a ball in the air — as they did at least a half-dozen times Monday night — it always seems to fall to the turf harmlessly, with a Steeler diving into the picture a step too late.

Not only would a few turnovers presumably spark the anemic offense, but the defense would also give itself a break by getting off the field.

Through two games, the Steelers’ average time of possession is 25 minutes, meaning the defense spends more than half the game on the field.

So until the Steelers start forcing turnovers and getting to the opposing quarterbacks, things will get worse before they get better.

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