Collier: Steelers' defense shows it's postseason worthy
Disruptive performances by Woodley, rookie Hood prove cathartic
Monday, December 28, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
No one can say this continually perilous Steelers season isn't thick with handy visual references.
Who needs a game clock, for example, when you know the fourth quarter has begun because there is a visiting white shirt floating free in the end zone, the readily identifiable key that means if the Steelers are ahead or tied, they won't be for long.
So there was Derrick Mason, the familiar Baltimore bullet, ready to catch Joe Flacco's 21-yard scoring strike and snap the 20-20 tie in another come-from-ahead Steelers pratfall, when, on the first play of the fourth quarter, the ball hit him on the facemask and slipped between his mitts incomplete.
I guess having a nose for the football isn't always a good thing.
And then of course, the world turned upside down.
The Steelers, outscored, 121-88, in 14 fourth quarters to that point, including epic defensive collapses in which they allowed 22 points to Green Bay, 21 to Oakland, 21 to San Diego, 14 to the Cincinnati and 10 to Chicago, instead allowed only 26 yards on 12 plays that comprised Baltimore's three fourth-quarter possessions.
Waiting for splash plays from his defense since somewhere on the other side of Thanksgiving, Mike Tomlin watched cannonball after cannonball yesterday. Dick LeBeau's defense got as many turnovers (3) as it had in the previous six games, and LaMarr Woodley got as many sacks on two plays as the defense had in the previous two games.
Of seven Ravens pass plays in the fourth quarter, three resulted in sacks, three fell incomplete, and one gained just 8 yards.
"It's huge," said beleaguered linebacker James Farrior, who got the Steelers' first interception since Nov. 9 and cued up a 23-20 victory in the 2009 home finale. "It just gives everybody a lot of confidence going to Miami and hopefully some other teams can get the job done when they need to, and we'll get into this dance."
Playoffs? The Steelers are still lined up on some dark sidewalk, waiting for some officious bruiser to unhook a velvet rope. Or something. But they can at least produce evidence of a defense, thought to be a requirement for postseason partying.
You wouldn't have chosen a day when the defense got slashed by the first 100-yard rushing performance by an opponent in 37 games (Ray Rice gained 141 yards on 30 carries) as the occasion of its return to confidence and even competence, but stunningly disruptive performances by Woodley and rookie Ziggy Hood were nothing less than cathartic.
"Seems like in all of our losses we've given up a lot of points in the fourth quarter, so going down to Miami after something like this means a lot," said Woodley, who had 10 tackles, two sacks, two hurries, a forced fumble, a pass defended, and, I think, an inside the park home run at one point. "The defense finally got a turnover [three actually]. James Farrior played an excellent game. James Harrison played an excellent game even though he was hurt. Ziggy did a good job. Ike Taylor got a sack, and I cost him another one jumping offside."
For all that, it was Woodley's little burst of hand-to-hand with backup Baltimore tackle Oniel Cousins that was as critical moment in the Steelers' eighth win as any. Cousins was playing right tackle for Michael Oher (still a major motion picture), who was flipped to left tackle when Jared Gaither couldn't start. Cousins had just ridden Woodley away from Flacco on a fourth-quarter incompletion when he inexplicably knocked Woodley to the lawn after the whistle.
"I thought the play was still going on," Cousins said. "I was just trying to finish."
"He already had grabbed my facemask while I was rushing," Woodley said. "The play was over, I turned around, and he blasted me in the face. I thought well, 'I'm just going to take one for the team right here.' "
Goodbye go-ahead field goal (at the minimum), hello third-and-30 at the 41. Hood pressured Flacco into an incompletion on that play, and the Ravens never got closer than the 35 thereafter.
"I know that sometimes when you lose you look for deeper reasons why, but, every week, I come up here and tell you, it's a play here or a play here," said Tomlin. "You've got to make significant plays at significant times. When we lost, it's because we haven't. When we've won, it's because we have. We had that same football team at fourth-and-5 in Baltimore with a chance to end that game in regulation [they lost in overtime], and Ray Rice beat us inside and had a 50- or 40-yard play. We had a similar situation out there today and we made the necessary play."
They actually made it three times over.
Hood's sack on third-and-9 set an offense under the direction of a highly erratic Ben Roethlisberger up for a shot at the winning field goal.
Woodley's sack on third-and-7 from the Steelers' 35 made it fourth-and-10.
And it was Woodley who slammed into Flacco again on the next play, causing a fumble that pinballed off another Raven's helmet and into the alert grasp of Hood.
"I just felt like all the preparation paid off today," said Hood, who saw extended duty after Brett Keisel left with a stinger. "Extra study this time. I'd played against them before and I thought I knew what would be effective. It's like coach Tomlin says, 'the standard is the standard.' "
It was time the defense finally played to it.
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