Capitals

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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A first period to forget, a strong night for Holtby and hope for the third line

A first period to forget, a strong night for Holtby and hope for the third line

 

WASHINGTON -- The Capitals returned home only to have their six-game winning streak snapped by a Columbus Blue Jackets team that had lost its last four.

Check out the recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

The first period is in the running for worst of the season

Washington was outshot 20-6, could not get possession and could not get the puck out of the defensive zone. Things were getting comically bad as Michal Kempny accidentally shot the puck on his own net which forced a save from Braden Holtby and then a trip as he tried to keep Pierre-Luc Dubois from getting to the loose puck. Later in the period, Gustav Nyquist got a breakaway chance when Jakub Vrana basically passed the puck right to him.

Why was it so bad? Maybe it was the jet lag, maybe the Caps came into this one thinking they would have an easy time against a bad team or maybe it was just one of those nights. Regardless, it was bad. While Washington played better as the game went along, that first period really set the tone for the entire 60 minutes.

Holtby was the only reason the Caps were in this game

The Caps will likely have to choose between Holtby and Ilya Samsonov in the offseason as their goalie of the future. Because of that, some fans are already drawing lines in the sand and declaring themselves for Team Holtby or Team Samsonov. Those Holtby detractors take every opportunity to declare every bad game as Holtby’s fault, but that was just not the case on Monday.

Holtby was the only thing, the only thing keeping Washington in this game.

Holtby made 33 saves for the game, 19 of which came in just the first period alone. The third goal Holtby allowed was soft as he showed Riley Nash too much daylight off the post allowing Nash to bank the puck off him and in, but besides that, it was a really strong game for the Caps' netminder overall.

The third line showed signs of life but remains a work in progress

Coming into this game, Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, and Richard Panik had played less than 24 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season. Having a full lineup back, Reirden was able to utilize this line and the results were good. They ultimately did not produce any points, but the line looked very good to start and it looks like there is potential there.

"They did some good things," Reirden said. "I thought early on they were probably one of our better lines to start the game. They were the group that was giving us some offense and giving us some possession time and I thought executing at probably the highest level."

Look, I know many fans out there are done with Panik already, but give him time to actually play on the line he was signed to play with. The Caps have banked a ton of points and sit first in the entire NHL. They have the flexibility to experiment with the third line and see if that trio can build some chemistry together.

Keep an eye on the home record

The loss drops Washington's home record to 8-3-4 for the season. Not terrible, but not great either especially when compared to their 14-2-1 record on the road. I'm not ready to think there is something wrong with theCaps at home yet, but this is something that is worth monitoring.

Turning point

The Caps had nothing going for them through 40 minutes, but it would not be the first time they were able to rally from a multi-goal deficit in the third period to get the win. Heck, I'm not sure people would even be surprised by it anymore. When Alex Ovechkin scored less than a minute into the third, my gut reaction was OK, here we go. Here comes the rally.

Nash's goal put an end to all of that when he was able to bank the puck in off of Holtby from behind the goal line. At that point, you knew the game was over.

Play of the game

On the first period breakaway Nyquist received courtesy of Vrana, Nyquist tried to beat Holtby with the backhand through the 5-hole. The Caps' netminder recovered well and swept out the pads to deny him the goal. Had Washington come back to make a game of this one, this save would have been one of the pivotal moments of the game.

Stat of the game

Congratulations to Craig "Woody" Leydig!

Quote of the game

Reirden on what went wrong in the first period:

"There wasn't a whole lot going right. That was, to me, one of our worst two periods of the year."

Fan predictions

You got the score right, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom both had one goal and one assist. I'm pretty sure you meant that the Caps were going to win though so you didn't nail this one as much as it looks like you did.

Umm...just a narrow miss there.

Go home Mike, you're drunk.

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Caps finally lay an egg to end six-game winning streak

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Caps finally lay an egg to end six-game winning streak

WASHINGTON - Put it away. 

Honestly, what else can the Capitals say after a 5-2 loss to the struggling Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday at Capital One Arena. 

They had won six games in a row. They had just swept a four-game road trip to Detroit and the three California teams (San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim). Things were going great. That's always dangerous in the NHL.  

Use any excuse you want - a trap game before playing the powerhouse Bruins visit in two days, a letdown coming home for the first time since Nov. 29, a sleepy Monday night crowd in early December - but the Capitals were having none of it. 

"Even if you had a winning streak like this, I think it's important - when you lose, there's no easy games in this league, that's for sure,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “You’ve just got to bounce back right away. We have a good test on Wednesday against Boston. I think, right?"

Forgive Backstrom if he wasn’t quite certain that a showdown loomed with the Bruins, who have the second-most points in the NHL behind Washington (22-5-5). It’s a tough time of year for players and the calendar gets away from them.

But after eight games out of the lineup with an upper-body injury, Backstrom was just happy to be back on the ice. He even scored a goal late in the third period to cut the Columbus lead to 4-2 before an empty-netter put things away. 

Up in Ottawa, the Bruins (20-5-6) were also losing a game you wouldn’t expect: 5-2 to Ottawa. Combine the Blue Jackets and Senators have just 55 points. That’s barely more than Washington (49) and Boston (46) on their own, but in the NHL there’s too much parity to take any game for granted.

“You've got to be on top of your game or you're susceptible to ending up on the wrong end of things,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “We’ve been really consistent, obviously, through 30-plus games of doing that. Tonight, we weren't. Had a bad start to the game. It cost us.”

Consider it a humbling lesson. Just like when the New York Islanders won a game at Tampa Bay on Monday night and the lead in the Metropolitan Division is seven points for the Capitals. No reason to panic, no reason to do anything other than start a new streak against a top-level opponent on Wednesday that should give both Washington and Boston a good sense of where their game is.

Take the good and toss the bad: Backstrom is back and scored. The penalty kill, with Lars Eller playing a bigger role, was solid again at 5-for-5 and the third line of Eller. Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik played as a unit for the first time since early October. 

Braden Holtby (33 saves, 37 shots) had a great first period in goal, but gave up an ugly bad-angle shot in the third to Riley Nash just a few minutes after Alex Ovechkin had cut the lead to 2-1 in the first minute of the third period with his 21st goal. But Columbus scored three times in the third - once on an empty net. A game Washington was chasing almost the entire way turned into a deserved Blue Jackets win. Things have gone so well so far in 2019-20. Time to flush it fast. The Bruins await.  

“We were lucky it was only a 1-0 game because of the way [Holtby] played,” Hagelin said. “We started getting better and better as the game went on, but it wasn’t enough. That’s one of those games where you have to forget about it and move on.” 

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