Right­ing the ship af­ter pair of losses

Ab­sence of Bur­nett, Sut­ton last week hurt

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Weekend Sports -

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.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

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

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