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Top-ranked Steelers defense lacking in big plays

Top-ranked Steelers defense lacking in big plays

PITTSBURGH (AP) Every time a pass comes his way, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis is faced with a choice: the ball or the man?

If Lewis chooses the ball, he knows he better be sure he can get a hand on it. If he chooses the man, Lewis knows he better bring the guy down, or else.

``You don't make that tackle, they score a touchdown on you and you might be coming out,'' Lewis said.

Lewis has proven to be a pretty shrewd decision-maker. His 21 pass breakups lead the NFL and he's rarely been beaten deep while serving as the backbone of a secondary that leads the NFL in fewest yards passing allowed.

The one thing Lewis hasn't done, is actually catch the ball. Then again, neither have the rest of his teammates on the league's top-ranked defense.

For all their responsible tackling, the Steelers (7-7) have lacked a certain menace this season, and it could cost them a playoff spot.

Heading into Sunday's game against Cincinnati (8-6), Pittsburgh ranks 27th in turnovers forced (13) and is tied for 23rd in sacks (27). Not exactly the formula that led the Steelers to three Super Bowl appearances - and two wins - in a six-season span from 2005 to 2010.

While the lengthy absences of safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor have played a role in the drop, the Steelers insist there are plays to be made, they're just not making them.

``I've dropped a ball that hit me in my face against Kansas City,'' said safety Ryan Clark, who has three of Pittsburgh's seven interceptions. ``Keenan dropped one against Tennessee. (Larry) Foote's dropped balls. We've had opportunities and that's on us.''

Hall-of-Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau isn't complaining. His job is to design schemes that slow opponents down. Getting the ball is a bonus.

``You can talk about a lot of statistics, but leading the league in yardage yielded is an important one,'' LeBeau said. ``Do we need more interceptions? Sure. We need more turnovers ... but every week we're trying to keep our football team in the game, keep the score in a manageable position.''

Something the Steelers have done as well as anyone in the league. The game-turning plays, however, have been sporadic. Pittsburgh is on pace for its fewest turnovers and sacks since LeBeau returned for a second stint as defensive coordinator in 2004.

Some of it is the byproduct of a defense in transition.

A unit that began the season with seven starters in their 30s now features a secondary with four cornerbacks - Lewis, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian - 26 or younger. It's the same along the defensive line, where 26-year-old nose tackle Steve McLendon is now basically a co-starter with 35-year-old Casey Hampton. Ditto the linebackers, where 24-year-old Jason Worilds leads the team with five sacks.

The youth movement has forced LeBeau to tinker a bit with his game plan. The Steelers spend the early portion of the game letting the youngsters get their feet set before unleashing the complex blitzes that are LeBeau's trademarks.

``With the younger guys back there we hold off a little bit and kind of simplify and so guys can play a little bit faster and they kind of know what they're doing,'' Hampton said. ``At the same time when it's simple there really shouldn't be no big plays or anything like that.''

Big plays haven't killed the Steelers this season, but little ones. The proliferation of short passing attacks give the front seven less time to get to the quarterback and shorter routes mean fewer opportunities for defensive backs to get in front of the ball.

``You look at it we've probably been one of the best teams in the NFL this year taking away the deep ball,'' Lewis said. ``Teams ain't really trying to throw deep like that no more. When you don't have those plays, those short plays is (less) of a risk to make a mistake.''

The Steelers have allowed just 18 passes over 25 yards this season and opponents are averaging just 5.9 yards per pass attempt, the lowest in the league. Yet their inability to create turnovers has forced the offense to deal with long fields almost every time it gets the ball.

Clark pointed to a 34-24 loss to San Diego two weeks ago as proof that the defense needs to be more opportunistic. The Steelers held San Diego to three straight three-and-outs with the ball near midfield in the first half. Each time the Chargers pinned the Pittsburgh offense deep in its own end. Each time the Steelers ended up punting and the Chargers finally capitalized on the great field position.

``We weren't flipping the field because we didn't make a play, special teams didn't make play and the offense didn't make a play,'' Clark said. ``Flipping the field is a huge part of the play ... if you look at the games we lost, that's why we lost.''

Not exactly. The Steelers have committed 27 turnovers this season, seventh-most in the league. Those miscues have often put the defense in difficult situations, even if Clark and company refuse to use it as an excuse.

If Pittsburgh was coasting into the playoffs - as it did last year when it created just 17 turnovers - the lack of takeaways wouldn't be an issue. But the Steelers have dropped four of five and need to win out to play past Dec. 30. The season could come down to one or two tipped passes that turn into interceptions or one fumble that ends up with a guy in a black helmet on top of it.

``We definitely need to get more turnovers and sacks and things like that if we want to be successful,'' Hampton said.

NOTES: Lewis missed practice on Thursday with a hip flexor and is questionable ... Polamalu sat out practice for the second straight day but it was not injury related.

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

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Scott Brooks preparing Wizards for much tougher road ahead

The Wizards entered the All-Star break having won seven of their previous nine games since John Wall went down with an injury, so a natural question to head coach Scott Brooks looking ahead to their first game back on Thursday was how he and his team can keep that momentum going in the second half.

Brooks immediately pointed to the Wizards' schedule, which gets notably more difficult in the coming weeks. They have a stretch of games over the next month-plus that features the best teams in basketball and Brooks knows that will be a big factor in whether they can sustain what they have going.

"Definitely the schedule gets tougher," Brooks said. "We've got a lot of good teams coming up starting with the first one in Cleveland. It's five games in seven nights against really good teams."

PODCAST: BIGGEST STORYLINES COMING OUT OF ALL-STAR BREAK

In the next five weeks, the Wizards will play 15 of 17 games against teams currently holding playoff spots. That includes the Cavaliers, Warriors, Celtics, Spurs (twice), Raptors and Timberwolves. 

That will represent a marked shift for the Wizards, who to this point have the weakest strength of schedule. Though they boast impressive wins over the Celtics, Rockets, Raptors and Timberwolves, they are about to play teams of that caliber more frequently with few nights off to rest. They have four back-to-back sets all in the next three weeks.

The upcoming stretch has been on the Wizards' minds for a while. Several players referenced their tough schedule before the All-Star break, knowing those wins leading up to the time off could prove extra important in hindsight.

The Wizards return to action on Thursday night against the Cavaliers, a team that has already beaten them twice. Both of those games were against the old version of the Cavs before they traded much of their roster at the deadline.

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Gone are Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder and Channing Frye. But they still have that guy LeBron James.

"Shoot, they looked good the other time, right? They beat us twice with the other group," Brooks noted. "LeBron is going to go down as one of the best ever. They are younger and more athletic. They're a good team and they still have an All-Star in [Kevin] Love who hasn't played because he's hurt."

The Cavs haven't lost in three games since the All-Star break and that includes road wins over the Celtics and Thunder. They look rejuvenated and, at least so far, improved from the aging, incongruent roster they had just weeks ago.

The Wizards have also been playing better lately, of course, and this upcoming stretch will be a major test for them. Wall has been out three weeks since he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He is likely to miss another three-to-five weeks. The Wizards will have to get through this without him.

If they can remain competitive and even beat some of these elite teams, they will only gain more confidence in their potential. That's the way Brooks plans to approach the schedule.

"We still want to be a better team when John comes back," Brooks said. "But the schedule definitely gets a lot tougher."

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Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

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Braden Holtby puts loss to Tampa solely on his own shoulders

The mood in the Capitals locker room following a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday was one of frustration. Forty minutes of strong play from Washington amounted to nothing because of a disastrous opening first period in which the Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead.

No one in the locker room was more frustrated than Braden Holtby.

"Obviously you don't want to go down three," he told reporters after the game. "That's on no one else but me. The third goal, especially the third, fourth goal, that's the difference in the game. I thought we played a really strong game against a really good team. We should have got a better result and that's on me why we didn't."

Tampa scored three goals in the first off of only eight shots. For the game, the Lightning managed to pierce Holtby four times off of only 19 shots.

RELATED: WHY THE CAPS LOST TO THE LIGHTNING

Frustration seemed to boil over on the fourth goal when a normally stoic Holtby was visibly upset after allowing Nikita Kucherov to beat him on a breakaway in a play similar to what we saw in the All-Star Game.

See for yourself:

"The key to getting better is learning from your mistakes and obviously I didn't do that," Holtby said. "I was just trying to play it patient. I wasn't trying to cheat towards that move and he came at it a different way. That's on me for not recognizing it. That's not a goal I can give up in that situation after our team battled the way they did, especially in the third."

The frustration Holtby feels likely is not the result of one goal, but the culmination of a recent slump that continues to plague the Vezina winner.

Holtby has lost four straight starts and has given up at least four goals in each of those games.

While Holtby was quick to take the blame for Tuesday's loss, head coach Barry Trotz was quick to defend his netminder.

"No one takes the loss," he said. "We all take a loss. I take a loss, the group takes a loss and Braden's part of the group. ... He's had a little tough stretch. It's no different than, we've got guys that haven't scored in 15, 20 games. It's no different than a player."

The challenge now is overcoming that slump.

For a slumping skater, Trotz could try different line combinations or play someone in different situations over the course of the game. Getting a starting goalie out of a slump, however, is more difficult. Most of the work has to be done in practice with the hope that it will carry over into the next game.

"You analyze how the goals are going in, what you're doing differently," Holtby said. "There's always some stuff that you can't control and stuff that you can and it's focusing on those contrallables that you can make a difference at. Like the first goal in Chicago, the last two goals here, those are goals that I could and should stop. You get to practice the next day and you focus on that and work hard until you figure it out so you don't do it again."

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Part of the problem in Washington is that team defense is the Caps' biggest weakness. For most of the season, and even in years past, Holtby has made up for much of the team's mistakes on the backend. Now that he is slumping those mistakes become much more glaring and costly.

"The goaltenders in this league are erasers," Trotz said.

Lately, Holtby has not been able to erase those mistakes.

But the team has already moved to address the defense. Brian MacLellan added a puck-moving defenseman in Michal Kempny to help the team get the puck out of the defensive zone more quickly. Waiving Taylor Chorney could also signify another move may be coming before Monday's trade deadline.

As for Trotz, even during the slump, he made clear his confidence in Holtby has not wavered.

"He has been a rock since the day I've been here the last four years and he's been an elite goaltender and I look at him that way."