Steelers' 'D' coming up with big stops
Surviving early turnovers and coming up with timely defensive stops has been key for the 6-2 Steelers this season.
Last Monday at Cincinnati, the Steelers' defense thwarted the Bengals in the final minute of a 27-21 win. And in the first quarter of road wins against the Titans, Buccaneers and Dolphins, the defense rebuffed early touchdown threats that could have swayed momentum.
After struggling to hold leads in several games last season, the NFL's fourth-ranked defense has gained confidence this season that it can stop teams when it matters most.
"Whether it's the winning drive at the end of the game or at the beginning, we know that with our style of play, (the opposing team) coming away with three points is to our advantage," strong safety Troy Polamalu said.
In a 23-22 win at Miami, the Steelers committed turnovers the first two times they had the ball.
Rookie Emmanuel Sanders fumbled the opening kickoff, and the Dolphins recovered at the Steelers, 22. Less than a minute later, the Dolphins recovered a quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fumble at the Steelers' 13.
The net damage on the scoreboard -- and on the Steelers' psyche -- was minimal, as Miami was held to no first downs, 9 yards and two field goals in taking a 6-0 lead.
"When the other team is all jacked up after recovering a fumble and has to settle for three points, it plays well on our psyche," free safety Ryan Clark said. "If a team doesn't score a touchdown after getting the ball down so close, you build so much momentum. People expect to score from that point on the field."
Added Polamalu: "It's great to put points on the board, but most teams want seven."
Polamalu said those two stops against the Dolphins proved pivotal in a game that ended in controversy when the Dolphins recovered Roethlisberger's fumble near the goal line late in the fourth quarter. Officials ruled in the Steelers' favor, leading to Jeff Reed's game-winning 19-yard field goal.
"People say Miami lost that game at the end. I disagree. You could say they lost at the beginning of the game," Polamalu said. "Scoring six points instead of 14 made a big difference."
It made a difference when the Steelers' defense held Tennessee to a field goal after Titans linebacker Will Witherspoon returned quarterback Dennis Dixon's fumble to the Steelers' 37 with 13:37 left in the first quarter.
The fumble gave Tennessee excellent field position with an opportunity to tie the game. Instead, the Steelers forced the Titans to settle for a field goal.
It made a difference later in the first quarter when the Titans had a first down at the Steelers' 40 following a 38-yard punt return. On third-and-1 from the 18, Polamalu intercepted quarterback Vince Young's pass intended for wide receiver Nate Washington.
The Steelers defeated Tennessee, 19-11.
And it made a difference in the Steelers' 38-13 win at Tampa Bay when quarterback Charlie Batch was intercepted at the Steelers' 31 on the second play of the game. The Bucs didn't muster a first down on the ensuing drive and were forced to kick a field goal.
"It's like we've got to outplay their defense. That's our mindset," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "Their defense caused a turnover, so we can't let them score."
According to Clark, the defense plays more relaxed when faced with adversity.
"You're kind of in a situation where you can't lose, so you let it all hang loose," Clark said. "You can't really get balls thrown over your head because of the short field, so (defensive coordinator Dick) LeBeau can attack more."Additional Information:
Here are the top five defenses in the NFL this season:
1. Giants: 250.6 yards per game
2. Chargers: 274.7
3. Saints: 277.0
4. Steelers: 298.2
5. Vikings: 304.6