Steelers’ defense out to build on lofty ranking

By Alan Robinson
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012

The Steelers' Larry Foote talks with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and linebacker coach Keith Butler during the Redskins game at Heinz Field Oct. 28, 2012.

The Steelers’ 2008 defense was a great one by any measure — wins, statistics, playoff success, intimidation factor.

Last year’s defense was statistically dominant, too, at least until Tim Tebow improbably ruined their 12-4 season.

As the halfway point of their 2012 season approaches, the Steelers (4-3) aren’t ready to argue that this defense belongs in the class of those statistically dominant units. For good reason, too.

Troy Polamalu has been seen only briefly since the season opener. James Harrison still isn’t James Harrison. The sacks (only 12 so far) and the turnovers (only one per game) aren’t piling up. The memories of the failed fourth quarters in Oakland and Tennessee and Denver remain vivid.

“We’re not patting ourselves on the back,” defensive end Brett Keisel said.

But glance at the NFL statistics, and the Steelers are in familiar territory. For all of their deficiencies, for all that has gone wrong while dropping three of four on the road, they are the league’s No. 2 defense.

“Dick LeBeau’s resume speaks for itself,” cornerback Ike Taylor said, referring to the defensive coordinator who always seems to find a way to make his defense work.

In their past two games — wins over the Bengals and Redskins — the Steelers gave up a total of 440 yards (about 600 fewer than the Saints). It’s a very Steelers-like number, even if it occurred during an uncharacteristic season; this will be the first time under coach Mike Tomlin they will hit midseason without being 6-2.

“We’re going out now and playing disciplined and playing the way we know how to play,” outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said after the Steelers shut down Washington wunderkind Robert Griffin III. “We went out and played our game. We weren’t worried about who was playing at quarterback.”

What’s missing — besides Polamalu, of course — are the game-changing big plays, the make-you-shudder hits that can change the course of a game. That’s why Harrison said it’s much too soon to use the word “dominant” to describe this defense.

“I feel like we’re headed in the right direction, but we’re still not where we want to be,” he said.

Despite limiting Griffin to 8 yards rushing and a 47 percent pass completion percentage (he came in averaging 70.4 percent), the Steelers benefitted from seven dropped passes. Cornerback Keenan Lewis, playing his best game of the season, knocked away two passes in the end zone that could have gone for touchdowns.

Harrison and linebacker Lawrence Timmons both appeared to be susceptible to play-action fakes, something Giants quarterback Eli Manning might look to exploit Sunday.

“For the most part we played our defense and executed reasonably well, but there are still things that can be corrected,” Harrison said. “We’re not perfect by any means. There were plays we could have done better on.”

The Giants (6-2), winners of five in a row, and Manning should provide a better indicator of where this Steelers defense is.

New York won its past two games despite allowing 914 yards to the Redskins and Cowboys, in part because Manning bailed them out in the fourth quarter both times.

Now the Steelers can only guess what beating the Super Bowl champions in their stadium would mean to their season. They trailed the Ravens (5-2) by 21⁄2 games in the AFC North only 10 days ago, but they’ve cut that to a single game.

“I don’t see this as a chance to make a huge statement,” Harrison said. “I see this is an opportunity to go out there and show what we can do. We’re going to go out there and try to play a better game than we did this week, and hopefully that will be good enough.”