Steelers defensive performance reminiscent of seasons past
This is the Steelers defense everyone expects, yet it isn't.
The Steelers are No. 1 overall and tops against the pass, No. 7 against the run and No. 9 in fewest points allowed — familiar territory for a defense that has led the NFL three of the past five seasons. But to James Harrison, this defense has a different feel.
The stars aren't the stars any longer, partly due to injuries to Harrison and the still-sidelined Troy Polamalu. The schematics are changing on a weekly basis because of the rapid evolution in the passing game. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has never needed to be more creative or constantly adaptive.
Still, the Super Bowl champion Giants couldn't net a single positive yard in the fourth quarter Sunday and managed only 182 yards in all. It was the second time in three games a Steelers opponent was kept below 190 yards, something the rest of the NFL's other 31 defenses have done only seven times.
“I don't think we're at that (previous) level — this (Giants) game was one situation where we were able to come through and do that, but we still have a long road to go to get to where we want to be with our alignment, our assignment keys and so forth,” Harrison said. “We're taking steps in the right direction, but we still made a lot of mistakes and left plays out there we could have made.”
The sacks (14) and takeaways (8) aren't there yet halfway into the season, yet the Steelers (5-3) are better statistically than they were a season ago.
“I just think that we're growing and doing it better,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “We're not doing anything differently. We've had some young guys playing situational football, like (nickel back) Cortez Allen, and he's starting to play a lot better now. So there's nothing different schematically, but the packages are bigger now than they were earlier in the year.”
One difference maker is outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who forced a fumble and had two quarterback hurries in the fourth quarter alone as the Steelers rallied from 10 points down to beat the Giants, 24-20, their biggest win in more than a year. Only a few weeks ago, a finding-its-way defense couldn't get off the field in the fourth quarter while losing leads to the Broncos, Raiders and Titans.
“I don't think we ever went away, truth be told,” Woodley said. “We're all just doing what we are supposed to do. We're just playing like the Steelers play football. We're just happy to get some things together.”
Woodley has been bothered by a troublesome hamstring injury but is ranked as the league's No. 3 outside linebacker performance-wise, ahead of Clay Matthews.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis, who has significantly upgraded his play despite being called twice Sunday for pass interference, allowed one catch for 10 yards while being targeted five times.
“The arrow's been pointing up with Keenan,” Tomlin said. “He's been consistently challenging and competing on just about every throw. … He's a big reason why we've been hot in the back end in recent weeks.”
Ryan Clark, arguably the Steelers' defensive MVP to date, grades out as one of the NFL's highest-ranked defensive backs, even as he and Will Allen — subbing for Polamalu — alternate between free and strong safety.
Despite minimal production from the defensive line — Ziggy Hood, for instance, has seven tackles on 149 snaps — the defense is playing with visibly more confidence than before.
“I think Larry Foote said it best: ‘This team looks kind of familiar,' ” Ike Taylor said on TribLive Radio. “It's a no-nonsense offense and defense, the way we're closing games out, and we're finally getting off the field on third down. You're finally seeing that physical style of play.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.