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09-09-2009, 02:36 AM
Steelers defense looking for an encore to showstopping 2008 campaign
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09252/996481-66.stm

The question seemed out of place, almost inappropriate, given the lofty standards established by the Steelers' defense in 2008. But Troy Polamalu, one of the key components of the defense, provided an answer almost as quickly as he closes on a ballcarrier.

Can the 2009 defense be even better?

"No question we can be better," said the five-time Pro Bowl strong safety. "There were a lot of mistakes that we knew we made that the public or the media may not know or even people who understand the game. If we limit those, we're better there. And if we get better as individuals, then we'll all get better. That's what coach [Dick] LeBeau is teaching us."

There are some tough acts to follow in life, even encores that are almost impossible to duplicate. But the Steelers' defense that may have been one of the most complete in the history of the National Football League in 2008 -- it stopped the run, stopped the pass, sacked the quarterback and intercepted passes -- gets to feel what it must have been like to follow Sinatra.

Even outside linebacker James Harrison, who posted the biggest numbers of them all in becoming the NFL's defensive player of the year, concedes it will be difficult to come up with the type of individual performance he registered in 2008 when he set a club-record with 16.5 sacks.

But that doesn't mean he won't be a better player in 2009.
PG graphic:

Well roundued ... 2008 Steelers defense

"Numbers don't necessarily show everything," Harrison said. "There are things we can do better from last year that we didn't do as well. We never went out there and played the perfect game, so you can always improve. As long as we don't play a perfect game, we can always be better."

Maybe that is all that is left for LeBeau's defense to accomplish. One year after they missed by 54 rushing yards of becoming the first team in 17 years to lead the league in rush defense, pass defense and total defense, the Steelers have only one realistic measurement for which to strive, and that is perfection.

To be sure, there were moments last season when it appeared they had achieved just that. Like, the Nov. 30 game in which they forced turnovers on six consecutive series, four by quarterback Matt Cassel, and thumped the New England Patriots on the road, 33-10.

Or the regular-season finale, a 31-0 shutout victory, when they held the Cleveland Browns to 126 yards offense and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to a 1.0 passer rating.

Or the AFC championship game when Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, the first rookie in NFL history to win two playoff games, was intercepted three times -- once for a touchdown by Polamalu -- and posted a passer rating (18.2) that wasn't much lower than the game-time temperature (26).

"It's tough to be better than we were last year," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "It was one of better defensive efforts ever."

Indeed, but until it's perfection, until the performance is jaw-dropping Usain Bolt stuff, members of the Steelers' defense think they can still be better.

"It's like coach LeBeau said, if everybody gets better individually, then collectively we'll be better as a defense," said cornerback Ike Taylor. "I'm not going to shortcut myself and the defense and think we can't."

"I feel like we can be," said inside linebacker James Farrior, the oldest member of the defense who went to his second Pro Bowl last season. "We put up some good numbers last year, numbers people won't match for a long time. But the numbers aren't the only thing you look at. You got to look at the whole team and whole chemistry behind it.

"Ben said it best after we went 15-1 [in 2004]. He said we might not go 15-1 again, but we'll be a better team. Yeah, we won the Super Bowl."

The Steelers finished the 2008 regular season ranked No. 1 in the league in fewest points (223), total defense (237.2), pass defense (156.9) and yards per play (3.89). They were No. 2 in rush defense (80.3) and sacks (51) What's more, they had the AFC's No. 1 sack tandem in Harrison and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who had 11.5 sacks during the regular season and set an NFL postseason record by registering two or more sacks in four consecutive games.

Some of the Steelers' numbers were among the most impressive in league history.

The Steelers came within 54 rushing yards of becoming the first team since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles to lead the NFL in total defense, rush defense and pass defense. After allowing Cleveland's Jamal Lewis more rushing yards (94) in the regular-season finale than any opposing back this season, they finished second behind the Minnesota Vikings in rush defense, allowing an average of 80.3 yards per game.

Also, the Steelers finished the regular season allowing an average of 3.897 yards per play, just 7/1000th of a yard from tying the 16-game record set by the 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who allowed an average of 3.890 yards per play.

"We got to try and top it," said Woodley, who enters his second season as a starter. "We got to set high goals to beat it. We weren't No. 1 across the board. I think we have good chance to do it."

The Tennessee Titans were the only team to score more than 24 points against the Steelers last season, and they did it in a 31-14 victory on Dec. 14 -- the last time the Steelers lost a game.

The reason: The Steelers allowed fewer big plays (20 yards or longer) than any team in the league. They ranked No. 1 in 20-yard runs (4), 20-yard passes (23) and 40-yard passes (2) and tied for second in fewest 40-yard runs (1).

Under LeBeau, their 71-year-old defensive coordinator, the defense has finished No. 1 overall in the league three times ( 2004, 2007, 2008). They have never ranked lower than No. 9.

And here's the scary part. The Steelers lost two starters from last year's defense -- cornerback Bryant McFadden and inside linebacker Larry Foote -- but they think they will be even better with their replacements.

Cornerback William Gay played so well last season when McFadden was injured the team began rotating him every second series when McFadden returned. And inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, the first player drafted by coach Mike Tomlin, is ready to do more than become an every-down player. His teammates think he's ready to burst into a star.

"He's going to make a lot of plays for us," Hampton said. "He's explosive, like Kendrell [Bell] was, but he can cover and do all those things, too. He's a big play waiting to happen every time he's out there."

Maybe they can be better.


Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com.
First published on September 9, 2009 at 12:00 am

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