The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers were on the field, the secondary failed to make plays on the football when the opportunities presented themselves in the 35-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Star receiver A.J. Brown had a field day in that Week 8 win, hauling in three touchdowns — one over star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and two over cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.
Witherspoon’s struggles led to his benching as head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin inserted James Pierre into the game, in large part due to plays that weren’t made when the opportunities were there.
That was the talking point after the game from players and coaches, and the emphasis on making plays on the football and turning 50/50 footballs into the Steelers’ favor were points of emphasis throughout the bye week and the buildup to the Week 10 matchup with the New Orleans Saints.
Speaking with reporters Thursday during his weekly media session, Austin stated that the Steelers have “got to turn the tide” in 50/50 situations and start making plays on the football in an effort to get the defense back on track, especially when the defenders are in the right position to make those plays.
“Yeah, we have to finish. There’s no getting around it. We’ve got to make the plays on the 50/50 balls, and right now we’re
losing those plays,” Austin stated to reporters Friday, according to the official transcript provided by the team. “To me, that makes a big difference. Because we’ve talked about it that we’re just giving up too many big plays, and a lot of the time, those are the ones you’ve got to win. The 50/50 balls right now are not in our favor, and we’ve got to turn that tide, and I’m certain we will.
“We’ve got a good group of guys, they worked their butts off at it, and they’ve done it. So, I know that we’ll get it turned.”
During the bye week, the Steelers reportedly drilled heavily on high-pointing the football, working on punching the football out at the catch point, and really just getting back to making plays on the football and instilling confidence in those situations once again. Early on in the season, that wasn’t much of a problem for the Steelers — especially Fitzpatrick — as the Steelers had nine turnovers in the first four games of the season.
Since then though, the Steelers have just one turnover in the last four games, including a stretch of three straight games without a turnover, the first time that’s happened since the start of the 2013 season.
Trying to snap that streak and get back on track overall, the Steelers focused on drilling plays on the football in an effort to help create that muscle memory once again, high-pointing the football, hitting the ball with the correct hand, basic things that clearly needed to be reestablished in recent weeks with the struggles.
“I think you continue to drill work. You continue, for example, if we weren’t high pointing the ball, to give those guys balls
above their head and make sure drills are designed to help you create the muscle memory to go up and get the ball,” Austin added, according to the official transcript. “If you’re breaking up a ball, making sure you’re hitting it with the right hand. All the things that you would do to try to create some muscle memory and continue to work in the right direction. That’s what we kind of focus on.”
With much of the emphasis on finishing in coverage over the bye week and into the Week 10 game against the New Orleans Saints, we’ll see if that hard work can pay dividends right away as the Steelers try and get the tide turned back in their direction defensively.