Steelers' pass defense improving as season goes on
The Steelers won six of their final seven games to finish 12-4 and earn a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs.
A significant upgrade in pass defense keyed that second-half kick.
Ranked 25th in early November, the Steelers were dominant down the stretch and finished the regular season ranked 12th.
"The whole defense came together,'' cornerback William Gay said. "Getting turnovers and sacks was big. Guys put pressure on themselves to put pressure on the quarterback. And we put pressure on ourselves to defend the deep pass. We didn't give up long passes the last couple weeks.''
Through their first nine games, the Steelers allowed 252.2 net passing yards and held only one opponent (Tennessee) under 200 yards passing, as they went 6-3.
In losses against New England and New Orleans, the Steelers allowed 350 yards and 288 yards in the air, respectively.
Defensive captain James Farrior said the players returned to basics and focused on fundamentals.
"It was a progression. It was something we had to keep working on,'' Farrior said. "We had better communication. We didn't make as many mistakes.''
As a result, the Steelers defense allowed an average of 165 yards passing over the final seven games — good enough to lead the league during that stretch. Included were only two 200-yard passing games in wins against Buffalo and Baltimore. In another win the Steelers held Carolina to 45 passing yards.
The defense's performance over the final seven games was reminiscent of the Steelers' performance during their Super Bowl season two years ago when they led the league in pass defense, allowing 156.9 passing yards per game.
Only three teams defended more passes this season than the Steelers, who faced an average of 37.1 attempts per game.
That's because the Steelers led the league in run defense. Teams abandoned the run and attempted to beat the Steelers through the air. Teams ran against the Steelers a league-low 20.8 times per game.
A big reason for the turnaround was defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's decision to have cornerback Ike Taylor shadow opposing teams' top receiver. Taylor's ability to excel in press coverage and take away the quarterback's first option led to more blitzing and a healthier pass rush.
Taylor allowed one touchdown pass all season and none in the final seven games.
The Steelers recorded 24 sacks during that stretch and finished with a league-high 48.
"We're playing ball like we know how,'' Taylor said. "We feel like if we play good, it'll be a good day overall. Going from (25) to 12 is a big jump.''
LeBeau said he was impressed with players growing comfortable in their roles.
"We tried to stick to the goals coach LeBeau had for us,'' Gay said. "We felt like if we could win those goals each game, some good would come out of it."Additional Information:
Defending the pass
How the Steelers' pass defense compares with last year's:
NFL rank: 12th (2010); 16th (2009)
Interceptions: 21 (2010); 12 (2009)
Touchdown passes: 15 (2010); 22 (2009)
Passer rating: 73.1 (2010); 83.4 (2009)
Completions of 20 yards and longer: 35 (2010); 46 (2009)