Steelers' defense out to tackle critics
For years, the Steelers' defense has played an integral role in the team's success. It started with the Steel Curtain and has continued with a unit that has been ranked No. 1 in total defense the past two seasons.
Yet, despite its reputation and storied history, SI.com shunned the Steelers' defense when it failed to list it among the NFL's top-rated defensive units this season. Predictably, veteran players considered their exclusion an insult.
However, most so-called experts are convinced the defense will be in the not-so-unfamiliar position of having to carry the offense, especially if the Ben Roethlisberger-led offense falters as it did down the stretch last season.
“I wouldn't say the defense has to carry the offense because at one point in time last year we weren't fulfilling our obligations,” defensive end Ziggy Hood said. “The offense was doing everything in its power to keep us in games.”
“Ever since I've been here, coach (Dick) LeBeau preaches being the top-ranked defense,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “So, I think our offense will feed off of us. If we can give them the ball, they will put up points. If we lose, it's because we allowed teams to score.”
Cornerback Ike Taylor said the defense must carry much of the load if the Steelers are to improve on last year's 8-8 record.
“It's what we've been doing since the Steel Curtain,” Taylor said. “When you think of Pittsburgh, you think defense — point blank, period. If everyone feels like we have to carry the team, then nothing has changed since the '70s.
“We've got a group of guys with thick skins, so there isn't any pressure to carry the team. We just take it on as another challenge. We apply pressure instead of worrying about pressure.”
While the defense is willing to take on the challenge, some offensive players are motivated by the lack of confidence some critics have in the unit's ability to put up points, beginning with Sunday's season opener against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.
While the exhibition season is largely discounted, the fact remains the offense scored more than 13 points only once in going 0-4. And only once did it reach the 30-point plateau last season — a 34-31 loss at Oakland.
“The defense really did carry us last year,” running back Isaac Redman said. “But I feel the offense is miles ahead of where it was last year. I'm ready to go out there and shut everybody up.”
Still, there are some glaring gaps in an offense trying to perfect Todd Haley's schemes. Even though Redman will likely be the opening-day starter ahead of recently acquired Felix Jones, questions persist about an oft-maligned offensive line and who can cover for the absence of Mike Wallace in the passing game.
Foote, though, insisted after Monday's practice that it won't matter what the offense does or doesn't accomplish if the defense isn't again among the league's best.
“Typically, offenses are a little behind defense early in the season,” Foote said. “We've been doing this for so long I think people sweep it under the rug. I'm scratching my head that no one remembers we were No. 1 in the league, but if you don't make the playoffs they tear down the whole team.”
While Hood believes the defense is ready to carry the load, he cautions against pitting the offense against the defense.
“When you get into a conversation about offense versus defense, that's how a team divides,” Hood said. “I don't see it as if we have to carry anybody.”