D-Gaps: Steelers' fourth-quarter troubles

When the Pittsburgh Steelers took a 27-7 lead over the Cincinnati Bengals early in the fourth quarter Monday night, the thousands of Steelers fans in attendance at Paul Brown Stadium undoubtedly began to turn their thoughts to the team’s week 10 showdown with the New England Patriots.

And who could blame them? Never in the 77-year history of the Steelers has the team lost a game it led by at least 20 points. And no team has overcome a 20-point, fourth-quarter deficit in nearly four years, since the Tennessee Titans beat the New York Giants 24-21 in week 12 of the 2006 season.

But over the following 14:50, the same Steelers defense that held the Bengals to seven points and 156 yards through three quarters allowed 14 points, 116 yards and was a Jordan Shipley drop away from giving Cincinnati four shots to win the game from the 5-yard line. The Steelers’ late meltdown is the latest in a disturbing trend for one of the league’s premier defenses.

Pittsburgh has allowed an NFL-best 123 points through nine weeks, but more than half -- 63 to be exact -- have come in the fourth quarter. It’s not a one-year phenomenon for the Steelers, who allowed more fourth-quarter points than all but two teams in 2009, and let up 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII before coming back to win.

Steelers Defensive Ranks This Season

Three of Pittsburgh’s seven losses last season came after it led by more than a field goal entering the final quarter, shocking when you consider in the previous 10 seasons (1999-2008) the Steelers were 75-3-1 in games where they led by at least four entering the last quarter, the best record in the NFL. Since 2009, Pittsburgh is 10-3 in such games, the league’s 27th-best record.

Matthews keeps up Defensive Player of the Year pace

Clay MatthewsMatthewsClay Matthews is accomplishing something notable every week, but his performance vs the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night deserves special recognition. Matthews registered a sack of Jon Kitna, stoned Marion Barber for a 3-yard loss on third-and-1 and capped the scoring with a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Matthews’ sack gives him an NFL-best 10.5 this season and makes him one of five active players to record double-digit sacks in each of his first two seasons. He’s also the second Green Bay Packers player to record double-digit sacks and an interception return touchdown in the same season, joining Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who did it in 2002.

Dallas lacking the "D"

If there is anyone out there who thinks Jerry Jones made the wrong decision by firing Wade Phillips Monday, consider the way Phillips’ defense performed in the first half of 2010. Only the 0-8 Buffalo Bills are allowing more points per game than the Cowboys’ 29.0, the highest total the Cowboys have allowed at the midpoint of the season since 1989.

And Dallas’ defense has been truly terrible lately, surrendering 41, 35, and 45 points in its last three games. It’s the first time the Cowboys have allowed 35 or more points in three straight games since Oct. 30, Nov. 6 and Nov. 13, 1960, the sixth, seventh and eighth games in franchise history.