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Pittsburgh Steelers: 2013 Midseason Report Card Grades for Defense, Special Teams

You thought the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense and coaches had bad midseason grades?

Wait ’til you see these.

If the first half of the 2013 season was a term paper, the one written by the Steelers’ defense would be laced with red ink.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Steelers have yielded 131.2 rushing yards per game, 31st in the league. Looking at it another way, opponents have attempted 248 runs on the Steelers defense, tied for sixth in the league. That high yardage total is partly because teams are running a lot on the Steelers. The Steelers are 17th with 4.2 yards allowed per carry, which still isn’t up to snuff even if Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gives nose tackle Steve McLendon a positive grade for his run defense. Casey Hampton has left a big void.

Cameron Heyward is becoming a disruptive force, beating out Ziggy Hood as the starter at left defensive end. He has a sack, two batted passes and is tied for eighth among NFL defensive ends with 15 quarterback hurries.

Brett Keisel has two sacks and 12 quarterback hurries, but he’s ranked eighth from the bottom (with Hood second to last) as a run defender among defensive ends.

Grade: D

LINEBACKERS

The unit shares the blame for the Steelers’ porous run defense and takes most of the blame for the Steelers’ inability to sack the quarterback.

The Steelers are tied for 29th in the NFL with 13 sacks. LaMarr Woodley leads the team with five, but he has none in the last two games.

At right outside linebacker, rookie first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones still hasn’t sacked a quarterback and lost the starting job to the perennially nondescript Jason Worilds. A second-round draft pick in 2010, Worilds has 13 career sacks, including three this season.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons leads the Steelers with 70 combined tackles, including 17 in the Steelers’ win over the Ravens.

The Steelers’ linebacking corps suffered a debilitating blow when Larry Foote went down for the season with a torn biceps in Week 1. Kion Wilson started the next two games in his place before being cut, brought back and put on the practice squad.

Vince Williams has started the last three games, but he sits out for a lot of the sub packages and has played less than half of the defense’s snaps. Adrian Peterson schooled him in London, gaining 140 yards in the Vikings’ 34-27 win over the Steelers.

Foote’s injury thrust the sixth-rounder into duty more than the Steelers would have liked as a rookie.

Grade: C-minus

SECONDARY

If someone said before the season that the Steelers would be 2-6 after eight games, you’d figure Troy Polamalu would be injured again.

Yet somehow the Steelers are 2-6 even though Polamalu has played every snap. He’s helped prevent the Steelers defense from completely falling  apart. He has an interception and a forced fumble, but this isn’t the 2008 or 2010 Polamalu. The 32-year-old had perhaps the worst game of his career at New England, but he always gets burned against the Patriots. Tom Brady knows how to exploit his gambling ways.

Polamalu’s performance last Sunday doesn’t mean that he’s completely lost it.

On the other hand, Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark are showing their age.

The 34-year-old Clark has missed eight tackles, most on the team. Pro Football Focus has graded Taylor positively in pass coverage just once this season, in Week 4 against Minnesota.

William Gay has been a pleasant surprise in winning a starting job at cornerback. He saved the Steelers’ bacon by breaking up two would-be touchdown passes in the Steelers’ win over the Ravens. The flipside of Gay’s rise has been the disappointing progress of Cortez Allen, who lost the starting job to Gay. He has one interception and just two passes defended this season.

Rookie Shamarko Thomas, who likely will have to be ready to start at safety next season, had seven combined tackles in the Steelers’ win over the Ravens and a season-high eight tackles in New England.

The Steelers have allowed 210 passing yards per game, fourth in the NFL, but they’ve also faced the second-fewest passes because teams haven’t had to come from behind on them.

The Steelers have intercepted four passes, more than just three teams.

Grade: D

SPECIAL TEAMS

Shaun Suisham has made 16 of his 18 field-goal attempts this season, including a game-winning 42-yarder against the Ravens. But his two misses, a 34- and a 32-yarder at Oakland, cost the Steelers a victory.

Zoltan Mesko was 34th in the league with an average of 42.5 yards per punt before he was cut after Week 8. Only three of his punts were downed inside the 20, worst in the league among regular punters, and his partially blocked punt led to a Raiders touchdown in the Steelers’ three-point loss at Oakland.

Grade: C-minus

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