No big plays: Jumbled Steelers secondary searching for consistency amid sea of new faces

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PITTSBURGH — By his own admission, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme is complicated. His requests of players are not.

"Stopping the run and getting to the quarterback and no big plays," cornerback William Gay said. "Regardless of who is playing or who is out there, those are the rules."

Even if the enigmatic Steelers (6-4) have struggled at times to play by them. Nowhere is that more evident than in the revolving door secondary, which is already on its fifth starting combination following injuries to Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu and ineffective play by Cortez Allen.

Pittsburgh is 15th in passing yards allowed, 18th in interceptions and 19th in opponent quarterback rating. Michael Vick temporarily turned back the clock last weekend in New York's stunning 20-13 victory, unleashing a picturesque 67-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter between Gay and safety Mike Mitchell that helped the beleaguered Jets build a quick 17-0 lead.

"We need to make people earn the points that they score against us and that was a one-play touchdown drive covering 67 yards," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's not good, winning football and not how we desire to play regardless of the quality of the execution of the people that we play."

It's a motto echoed by LeBeau, who refuses to use the ever changing faces in the secondary as an excuse for sometimes middling play.

"That's why you need depth and flexibility," LeBeau said. "I think our guys have done a good job of going in there and doing that."

The combination that runs onto the field Monday night in Tennessee won't look like the group that played in the opener.

Taylor is out indefinitely with a broken forearm. Polamalu is recovering from a sprained knee and Allen is struggling to regain his confidence. That's a combined 28 years of experience in LeBeau's defense between them. In their place are Brice McCain, Antwon Blake and Will Allen. Of that group, only Allen has been with Pittsburgh more than one season.

"Every day we go over situations regardless of who is in so everybody is responsible for knowing the information," Gay said. "If somebody has an injury, the guy stepping in has been through the situation mentally. Then it's a matter of going on the field and executing."

Results have been mixed. McCain returned an interception for a pivotal touchdown against Jacksonville last month and Gay did the same in a thumping of Indianapolis. The Steelers have also given up splash plays too. Only nine teams have given up more than the 17 touchdown passes they've surrendered this season.

"We need to rebound," Blake said.

The reeling Titans (2-7) and strong-armed rookie Zach Mettenberger await. The Steelers have dominated teams that start first-year quarterbacks since LeBeau returned in 2004, going 18-2 in that span.

"We just go out and play Dick LeBeau defense and we hope it works," Gay said.

The Steelers get a needed week off after facing Tennessee, and there's hope Taylor's rapidly healing arm will be good enough to play when Pittsburgh hosts New Orleans on Nov. 30.

Just the sight of the 12-year veteran sprinting out of the tunnel should be enough to provide a jolt.

"When he gets back out there, I'm going to feel like I'm coming back or something," Gay said. "That's like my big brother. To see No. 24 run out of the tunnel it's going to be fun to watch."

NOTES: Nose tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder) did not practice on Thursday. He will likely be replaced by rookie Daniel McCullers. ... Safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) was limited while safety Ross Ventrone was able to practice.


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