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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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Kevin Durant gives his NBA Finals predictions

Kevin Durant gives his NBA Finals predictions

While a number of teams are fighting to be the favorite heading into the NBA Playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers picked up a key endorsement from Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant.

When asked who he thought will win it all this year, Durant chose the Clippers defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals and upsetting the No. 1 seed Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. 

"They're just so deep," Durant said of the Clippers on “Play For Keeps” podcast. "They haven't had their whole team together at once for a long period of time yet, and that talent is just undeniable. When you have [Paul George] and Kawhi [Leonard] at the wings, that's what you need to win is wings. You got those two at the wings, arguably top three, top four at the wing position on one team."

So far in Orlando, the Clippers have gone 1-2 after defeating the New Orleans Pelicans and falling to the Lakers and Phoenix Suns. As of now, they hold the two-seed in the Western Conference playoff picture and would face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. However, they are currently just a half a game ahead of the Denver Nuggets with five seeding games remaining.

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The Lakers clinched the one-seed last week and are up six games in the standings over their cross-town rivals.

ESPN’s playoff odds gave the Clippers a 10% chance of winning it all. They ranked third behind the Bucks with a 49.7% chance and the Lakers at 18.7%. 

Durant chose Los Angeles over his own team, the Brooklyn Nets, who are also in a good position to make the playoffs as the current seven-seed in the East Conference. However, the Nets are playing in Orlando without eight players including a number of starters like Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie and Durant, who missed the entire regular season after tearing his Achilles during the 2019 NBA Finals.

If his team retains the seven-seed heading into the playoffs, they would likely face the Toronto Raptors, who Durant projected would fall to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But regardless of seeding, Durant acknowledged it’s still anyone’s game.

“I hate doing that s---,” he said about predicting a winner. “You never know what could happen – you seen that with us last year.”

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Orioles fans hoping for a Ryan Mountcastle sighting in majors soon as MLB rosters adjust

Orioles fans hoping for a Ryan Mountcastle sighting in majors soon as MLB rosters adjust

Last night, the Orioles sent outfielder DJ Stewart to the team’s alternate training site at Double-A Bowie after an 0-for-14 start to the season. The move got the roster down to 28 players ahead of the deadline.

But even with Stewart now down and the roster full, it’s natural to be curious where the organization's most pro-ready prospect, Ryan Mountcastle, is and why he hasn’t been called up yet. 

The Orioles have four outfielders on the 28-man roster currently: Austin Hays, Dwight Smith Jr., Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander. They’ll have to make another roster move in the coming days, when pitcher John Means comes off the bereavement list, too.

Still, there is a natural curiosity about what the International League’s Most Valuable Player from a year ago could accomplish at the major league level. 

Last year at Triple-A Norfolk, Mountcastle slashed .312/.344/.527 and had 25 home runs in 127 games. While he predominantly played the corner infield spots, he played the outfield for the first time in his professional career.

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Now, the Orioles want to develop him as a corner outfielder. 

What Mountcastle’s time at the development site shows, however, is that they value the camp more so than regular games for him right now. 

With Hays and Santander in center and right field, the two options for left field are Mullins and Smith, who are batting .083 and .167, respectively. Neither is getting on-base at a clip better than .250. In terms of hindrances to Mountcastle’s job in the major leagues, there aren’t many right now. 

The Orioles are carrying three catchers, which is one area the eventual roster move could come from when Means is back on the roster, but until Mountcastle comes up, those questions won’t be quelled. 

The team has already acquired an extra year of club control by keeping Mountcastle down for the first week of the season, meaning the reasons for keeping him down at this point relate strictly to his development. 

That means he’ll be in Baltimore once the Orioles think he’s ready to play major league defense and take major league at-bats. 

As for when that is, however, is solely up to the organization at this point.

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