PITTSBURGH - Every time a pass comes his way, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis is faced with a choice: the ball or the man?
If Lewis chooses the ball, he knows he better be sure he can get a hand on it. If he chooses the man, Lewis knows he better bring the guy down, or else.
"You don't make that tackle, they score a touchdown on you and you might be coming out," Lewis said.
Lewis has proven to be a pretty shrewd decision-maker. His 21 pass breakups lead the NFL and he's rarely been beaten deep while serving as the backbone of a secondary that leads the NFL in fewest yards passing allowed.
The one thing Lewis hasn't done, is actually catch the ball. Then again, neither have the rest of his teammates on the league's top-ranked defense.
For all their responsible tackling, the Steelers (7-7) have lacked a certain menace this season, and it could cost them a playoff spot.
Heading into Sunday's game against Cincinnati (8-6), Pittsburgh ranks 27th in turnovers forced (13) and is tied for 23rd in sacks (27). Not exactly the formula that led the Steelers to three Super Bowl appearances - and two wins - in a six-season span from 2005 to 2010.
While the lengthy absences of safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor have played a role in the drop, the Steelers insist there are plays to be made, they're just not making them.
"I've dropped a ball that hit me in my face against Kansas City," said safety Ryan Clark, who has three of Pittsburgh's seven interceptions. "Keenan dropped one against Tennessee. [Larry] Foote's dropped balls. We've had opportunities and that's on us."
Hall-of-Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau isn't complaining. His job is to design schemes that slow opponents down. Getting the ball is a bonus.
"You can talk about a lot of statistics, but leading the league in yardage yielded is an important one," LeBeau said. "Do we need more interceptions? Sure. We need more turnovers ... but every week we're trying to keep our football team in the game, keep the score in a manageable position."
Something the Steelers have done as well as anyone in the league. The game-turning plays, however, have been sporadic. Pittsburgh is on pace for its fewest turnovers and sacks since LeBeau returned for a second stint as defensive coordinator in 2004.
Some of it is the byproduct of a defense in transition.
A unit that began the season with seven starters in their 30s now features a secondary with four cornerbacks - Lewis, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian - 26 or younger. It's the same along the defensive line, where 26-year-old nose tackle Steve McLendon is now basically a co-starter with 35-year-old Casey Hampton. Ditto the linebackers, where 24-year-old Jason Worilds leads the team with five sacks.
The youth movement has forced LeBeau to tinker a bit with his game plan. The Steelers spend the early portion of the game letting the youngsters get their feet set before unleashing the complex blitzes that are LeBeau's trademarks.
"With the younger guys back there we hold off a little bit and kind of simplify and so guys can play a little bit faster and they kind of know what they're doing," Hampton said. "At the same time when it's simple there really shouldn't be no big plays or anything like that."
Big plays haven't killed the Steelers this season, but little ones. The proliferation of short passing attacks give the front seven less time to get to the quarterback and shorter routes mean fewer opportunities for defensive backs to get in front of the ball.
"You look at it we've probably been one of the best teams in the NFL this year taking away the deep ball," Lewis said. "Teams ain't really trying to throw deep like that no more. When you don't have those plays, those short plays is (less) of a risk to make a mistake."
The Steelers have allowed just 18 passes over 25 yards this season and opponents are averaging just 5.9 yards per pass attempt, the lowest in the league. Yet their inability to create turnovers has forced the offense to deal with long fields almost every time it gets the ball.
Clark pointed to a 34-24 loss to San Diego two weeks ago as proof that the defense needs to be more opportunistic. The Steelers held San Diego to three straight three-and-outs with the ball near midfield in the first half. Each time the Chargers pinned the Pittsburgh offense deep in its own end. Each time the Steelers ended up punting and the Chargers finally capitalized on the great field position.
"We weren't flipping the field because we didn't make a play, special teams didn't make play and the offense didn't make a play," Clark said. "Flipping the field is a huge part of the play ... if you look at the games we lost, that's why we lost."
Not exactly. The Steelers have committed 27 turnovers this season, seventh-most in the league. Those miscues have often put the defense in difficult situations, even if Clark and company refuse to use it as an excuse.
If Pittsburgh was coasting into the playoffs - as it did last year when it created just 17 turnovers - the lack of takeaways wouldn't be an issue. But the Steelers have dropped four of five and need to win out to play past Dec. 30. The season could come down to one or two tipped passes that turn into interceptions or one fumble that ends up with a guy in a black helmet on top of it.
"We definitely need to get more turnovers and sacks and things like that if we want to be successful," Hampton said.
Notes: Lewis missed practice on Thursday with a hip flexor and is questionable ... Polamalu sat out practice for the second straight day but it was not injury related.