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Defense on a well-known pace

Jerry DiPaola
| Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2004

After 10 weeks of the NFL season, the Steelers' defense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL.

But before city officials start planning a parade for the day after Super Bowl XXXIX, some semblance of reality should be inserted here.

The Steelers have finished the regular season with the league's top defense four times since 1970, and they have turned it into a Super Bowl victory only once (following the 1974 season). In 1976 and 2001, they lost in the AFC Championship game; in 1990, they were 9-7 and didn't make the playoffs after losing the final game of the season, 34-14, to the Houston Oilers.

Nothing similar to that 1990 debacle is expected to happen to this year's Steelers defense. The Steelers are one of only eight teams that have allowed an average of fewer than 300 yards per game. The Steelers lead the league with 257.9. They are also tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the lead in quarterback sacks (28).

Plus, there are at least three legitimate Pro Bowl candidates on the defense.

  • Defensive end Aaron Smith has six sacks and is tied for fourth in the AFC. Only two other ends in the conference -- the New York Jets' John Abraham (9 1/2) and the Indianapolis Colts' Robert Mathis (eight) -- have more.

  • Inside linebacker James Farrior has been the most consistently solid player on the team (either side of the ball), with three fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and three passes defensed.

  • Strong safety Troy Polamalu, who seldom misses a tackle, often looks like a linebacker in run defense, but he also plays like a cornerback with four interceptions (tied for third in the conference).

    "You cannot say enough about him," coach Bill Cowher said. "We move him all over the place, and he continues to make plays."

    What makes this defense different from the 2001 unit that led the team to a 13-3 regular season is the improved athleticism in the secondary and Farrior, who didn't join the team until 2002. Plus, Smith is now into his fifth year as a starter.

    Depth is better, too, with Larry Foote, Willie Williams and Chris Hoke stepping in seamlessly for inside linebacker Kendrell Bell, cornerback Chad Scott and nose tackle Casey Hampton. Now, Bell has returned and is playing with his normal recklessness while getting at least as many snaps as Foote.

    Six players have at least three sacks, a tribute to the exotic schemes hatched by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

    "They were blitzing a lot and coming with a lot of different looks," Browns center Jeff Faine said. "They don't just stand still. They are always moving."

    Next up is a trip Sunday to Cincinnati to play the Bengals, the only team with a runner who rushed for 100 yards against the Steelers (Rudi Johnson, 123).

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