Steelers Defense Has Lot to Prove

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree (48) warms up before an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense are eager to play again. They’re going to have to wait an extra day.

They want to put a forgettable performance against Kansas City in the past and prove themselves this week against an upstart Tampa Bay offense. The Steelers will see where they stand during their first prime-time appearance of the season Monday night against veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the undefeated Buccaneers.

“We want to get that rotten taste out of our mouths and just get back to playing football,” defensive end Cam Heyward said on Friday. “It’s a great opportunity against a good offense.”

The two-time defending AFC North champions are winless through two weeks. The Steelers (0-1-1) are off to their worst start since 2013, which was also the last time they missed the playoffs.

Last week, Chiefs first-year starter Patrick Mahomes became the second player to throw for six touchdowns against Pittsburgh, and the first since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly did it for Buffalo in 1991. Mahomes threw his six scores to five players and finished with more touchdowns than incomplete passes.

“We’ve got a lot of stuff to prove,” linebacker Bud Dupree said. “There’s a lot of speculation of us not being a good defense, but we know in our heart and soul that we have one of the best defenses.”

The Steelers statistically boasted a top-10 defense last season. They ranked No. 5 in yards and two spots back at No. 7 in points, while also establishing a franchise record for sacks in a season.

This season has been much different. The defense has allowed an average of 31.5 points and close to 400 yards per contest through two games.

“We just want to be established and known as one of the best defenses,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “We haven’t really put that on tape for the first two games. The quicker we can get back out there, the quicker we can show everybody what we can do.”

Haden expects to play Monday after missing last week’s game against Kansas City with a hamstring injury. The ninth-year veteran was a full practice participant for the second straight day Friday. Haden will be a welcome addition to a defense that had communication issues, lacked a consistent pass rush and couldn’t get off the field.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler said this week that he simplified the game plan to allow players to play fast, improve communication and eliminate big plays through the secondary. Butler felt his players tried to overcompensate and do too much at times against the Chiefs.

“I jumped offsides when we were down because I was trying to time the snap and get to the quarterback,” Dupree said. “Somebody has to make a play and I was trying to put it on my shoulders and make a play, and sometimes that’s trying to do too much.”

Tampa Bay (2-0) is off to its best start in eight years and features the NFL’s top-ranked offense. The Bucs are unbeaten thanks in large part to Fitzpatrick, the 35-year-old journeyman who has thrived with suspended quarterback Jameis Winston sidelined. Fitzpatrick is playing the best football of his 14-year career, throwing for 819 yards and eight touchdowns in Tampa Bay’s first two games.

The Steelers insist their defense is prepared for the challenge.

“We’re just ready to go,” Heyward said. “I’m ready to move forward. I think we cleaned up a lot of problems. We had a lot to address, but it won’t be addressed until Monday. Hopefully, we can put on a good performance.”

NOTES: S Morgan Burnett (groin), G David DeCastro (hand), T Marcus Gilbert (hamstring) and DE Stephon Tuitt (illness) did not practice on Friday. G Ramon Foster (knee) and DE Tyson Alualu (shoulder) were full practice participants for the second straight day.

COMMENTS