Righting the ship after pair of losses
Absence of Burnett, Sutton last week hurt
The Steelers will get cornerback Cameron Sutton back in the lineup for the game against the Raiders on Oakland Sunday and likely safety Morgan Burnett, who is questionable with a back injury. That’s good news for a defense that was woefully thin on capable replacements Sunday night against the Los Angeles Chargers.
At least that was the picture coach Mike Tomlin painted this week with his colorful description of what happened when the Steelers had linebackers covering Chargers top receiver Keenan Allen for a portion of Sunday night.
“There was going to be some smoke-and-mirror play,” Tomlin said.
Merriam-Webster has a definition for most anything, including colloquial sports phrases. The definition of smoke and mirrors is as follows: something intended to disguise or draw attention away from an often embarrassing or unpleasant issue.
The unpleasant issue for the Steelers was Burnett and Sutton’s absence from the lineup. Without their top two dime linebackers — and the only two players on the roster who really know the position — the Steelers had to resort to artful deception to try to combat quarterback Philip Rivers, a 15-year veteran with nearly 54,000 career passing yards.
By the third quarter, it was neither artful nor deceptive as Rivers dissected the Steelers’ defense with ease en route to a 26-point second half that sent the reeling Steelers to a 33-30 loss.
It was a rather telling quote Tuesday afternoon when Tomlin uttered it. The explanation was reasserted Thursday when defensive coordinator Keith Butler was asked to circle back on the game plan that ultimately had players such as L.J. Fort and Jon Bostic sometimes covering Allen, a Pro Bowler and the Chargers’ undisputed No. 1 receiver.
Sutton had to miss the game with a personal issue, and the Steelers did not know until late in the week that he would miss the game. Without enough time to adjust the personnel, the coaches cobbled together sub-packages with available players. Fort, the best pass defender among the linebackers, played 52 of 63 snaps. Marcus Allen, a rookie playing in his first NFL game, played 17 snaps.
“We didn’t have everybody that we wanted to and tried to do the best with what we had,” Butler said. “We were aware of matchups and stuff like that. The game plan … I thought was a good game plan. It worked for us in the first half pretty well. In the second half, you know Philip Rivers did a great job in terms of getting his team in and out of good offensive plays.
“They did a good job against us in the second half. We had some matchups that we certainly didn’t want to have and we’ll work to do the best with what we have and play the hand we are dealt. And that’s what we did.”
If Sutton, a trained cornerback, can play dime linebacker, then why not corners Artie Burns or Brian Allen? Sutton explained how difficult it would be to perform on short notice, especially for someone who has never played the position.
“Playing inside in the dime and playing outside at corner, it’s a different mentality,” Sutton said. “A guy who has been consistently playing outside and then in 48 or 72 hours, you have to learn a position, learn what to do, study film … it can be a lot. You’re trying to get acclimated from moving outside to inside. Your entire thought process changes. Who are you working with now? What gap do I have to fit in the run game? I have to do this. I have to do that. It’s a lot of thinking. Even for me, it’s challenging.
“When I play corner and come inside, I have to know I might be working with a linebacker here. I might be working with a corner here. I might be working with both. I might have to fit in the run game. I might have to fit outside. It’s a little challenging, especially for a guy who would have to step in on two days’ notice.”
And Sutton has played dime linebacker all season.
With Burnett and Sutton back in the lineup this week, the Steelers won’t have to worry as much about mismatches in personnel.
But Tomlin noted early in the week that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr will challenge the Steelers with concepts and schemes the way Rivers did in the second half. And the Steelers know they have to be ready to defend it, better than they did against the Chargers.
Safeties Sean Davis and Morgan Burnett, right, congratulate cornerback Cameron Sutton, center, on an interception Sept. 9. Sutton is set to return Sunday, bolstering the Steelers turnover abilityies against the Raiders. Burnett is listed as questionable.
On the Steelers RAY FITTIPALDO