Washington benched as Cowher shakes up Steelers secondary

Updated: November 4, 2003, 7:24 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- When a team goes from winning 25 games in two seasons to being 2-6 at midseason, changes are inevitable. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, those changes begin with right cornerback Dewayne Washington.

Washington, whose ill-timed penalty last season led to a playoff loss to Tennessee, was benched Tuesday by coach Bill Cowher. Deshea Townsend, a backup who plays extensively in the extra-back defenses, will start.

"I think there is a lack of confidence right now," Cowher said. "I think that has more to do with it than anything."

Cowher initially made the move from Washington to Townsend late in Sunday's 23-16 loss in Seattle, after Washington missed a tackle on a medium-range pass the Seahawks' Darrell Jackson turned into a 43-yard gain. Shaun Alexander went on to score the decisive touchdown on a 1-yard run.

The missed tackle apparently wasn't the only reason Washington won't start Sunday against Arizona quarterback Jeff Blake, who has thrown for 1,242 yards and five touchdowns in his last four starts against Pittsburgh.

"I think right now, in my opinion, it is a change that needs to be done," Cowher said. "Not just based on one game, but based on performance and based, in my mind, on the state of mind Dewayne is in. I think he needs to sit back and look at it right now."

It is a change some expected after the Steelers gave up 300 or more yards passing in each of their final three games last season. Tennessee's Steve McNair threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-31 playoff victory decided by Joe Nedney's 26-yard field goal, but only after Washington was penalized for running into the kicker on the previous play.

With more than $45 million committed in contracts to Washington and left cornerback Chad Scott, the Steelers made no major changes in their secondary except to make former backup Mike Logan their starting strong safety.

Washington agreed to a $20 million, five-year contract before the 2001 season and is signed through the 2005 season. He has started 88 consecutive games since joining Pittsburgh before the 1998 season.

Statistically, the secondary has done all right, ranking sixth in pass defense (183 yards per game). But the Steelers have repeatedly given up big-yardage plays at critical times, such as when the Rams' Marc Bulger completed 11 passes of 20 yards or longer in a 33-21 victory two games ago.

Cowher hasn't decided how Townsend's promotion will affect the nickel and dime alignments, though rookie cornerback Ike Taylor may take Townsend's place. It doesn't seem likely Washington will move into Townsend's role.

No other lineup changes are planned, even though a five-game losing streak has dropped the Steelers three games behind Baltimore (5-3) in the AFC North. The Steelers were predicted to win the division easily.

"We have created a mountain for ourselves to have to overcome," Cowher said.

Unlike Oakland (2-6), where defensive back Charles Woodson was critical of coach Bill Callahan, the Steelers aren't openly criticizing their coach. On Monday, wide receiver Hines Ward all but laughed at suggestions Cowher was in danger of losing his team.

"No one likes to be in this situation," Cowher said. "It is foreign to myself and I am dealing with it as everybody is dealing with it. They are trying times."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index