History at stake for strong defenseDecember 30, 2012 12:07 am

Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-GazetteA journeyman wide receiver named Derek Hagan, who is having another non-descript season with the Oakland Raiders, felt qualified enough earlier this season to suggest the defense employed by Dick LeBeau is predictable.

In many regards, Hagan might have been right: LeBeau's defense is predictable.

It is on target to finish as the best in the NFL again, a pattern that has become as repetitive as a broken record.

And, in a season of disappointment, it has a chance to do something that no defense in franchise history and no NFL team has done in 21 years.

The Steelers rank No. 1 in the league in total defense and pass defense, and No. 2 against the run. If they can come up with a strong rush-defense effort, the Steelers have a chance to finish No. 1 in the league in all three categories -- something they have never done in team history.

The most recent team to do that was the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles, a team that also missed the playoffs. But the Eagles had five defensive players named to the Pro Bowl that season. The Steelers had none.

In an otherwise meaningless game today against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field, the opportunity to carve a place in history is at stake.

"We've certainly made them aware of that," LeBeau said. "That is one of our goals in this game. The first goal, of course, is to win the game. But you don't get a chance to do that very often and we're looking forward to the opportunity to do it."

The Steelers have been able to do this despite playing nine games without Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, four games without cornerback Ike Taylor and three games without Pro Bowl outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

If they hold on to their No. 1 overall ranking, it would be the fourth time in the past five years they have led the league in total defense. If they hold on to their No. 1 pass defense ranking, it will be the second year in a row and third in the past five they have led the league in that category, too.



"I put ours against any defense," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "Look at what we've done over the past few years I can't see how people keep saying that."

Rebounding early

Granted, the Steelers still have a chance to be the No. 1 rush defense, but they also have a chance to drop to No. 2 in pass defense, especially based on the number of passing yards they have surrendered in the past two games (619)

The Steelers have given up 1,312 yards rushing in 15 games -- 57 yards more than the top-ranked Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1,255), who play the Falcons (13-2) in Atlanta. Falcons running back Michael Turner has rushed for over 100 yards in the past two home games against the Buccaneers.

To catch the Buccaneers, the Steelers probably will need a performance similar to the one they had a week ago when they limited the Bengals to 14 yards rushing on 16 attempts.

Conversely, the Steelers (2,781) are only 30 yards ahead of the New York Jets (2,811) in pass defense and could easily drop to No. 2. But the Jets have to face Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick, who went over the 3,000-yard passing mark for the third consecutive season; and the Steelers are expected to face Thad Lewis, who has been promoted from the practice squad to replace injured quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy.

"We play hard," safety Ryan Clark said. "Coach LeBeau always preached that, but a little more this year because we didn't start out very well. And he thought some of that could be fixed with energy and I think he was right. Once we got people healthy and some of young guys came along and we were able to build some chemistry and cohesiveness, we were getting people off the field easy.

"Look at the early games, we couldn't get off the field on third down. You had a new nickel, a new starting cornerback, we were also trying to integrate safeties because Troy was out; James didn't play the first few games, then Woodley got hurt. There was always so many moving parts. But I think, for the most part, we pulled it together really well."

Clark's reference was to unexpected early season losses to the winless Raiders and the one-win Tennessee Titans, games in which the Steelers blew leads of 10 points and 7 points, respectively, by allowing 23 points in the final quarter. The Steelers allowed the Raiders and Titans to convert a combined 16 of 28 third-down chances.

"For, I'd say, over a month and a half now, our third-down numbers have been good," LeBeau said.

Indeed, in eight of the past nine games, the Steelers have allowed only 24 of 102 third-down chances to be converted. The lone exception was the loss to San Diego when the Chargers converted 12 of 22 third-down opportunities.

"We got a little behind early in all phases, but these guys stayed together and played pretty doggone good defense and got us back to where we like to be -- up near the top of the bunch," LeBeau said.

Holding on

If the Steelers finish No. 1 against the pass, it will be the second year in a row and third time in the past five years they have finished at the top of the league in that category. And that after allowing back-to-back big games by Dallas' Tony Romo (341) and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton (27.

But they will play their fourth game in a row without Taylor, and it's possible they will be without cornerback Keenan Lewis (knee) as well.

Once Taylor was injured, the Steelers saw several of their NFL-best streaks ended. They had gone seven games in a row without allowing a 200-yard passer until San Diego's Philip Rivers passed for 200 yards Dec. 9.

And they had gone 20 games in a row without a 300-yard passer until Romo chopped them up in Dallas, a game in which the Steelers were without Taylor and nickel back Cortez Allen and also lost Lewis in the fourth quarter.

"I'm very proud of this group for staying with it and fighting through after a slower start than we wanted," LeBeau said.



Roster moves

The Steelers placed three players already declared out for the game today on injured reserve and signed three others to take their place. Mike Wallace, Mike Adams and Curtis Brown were placed on injured reserve and wide receiver David Gilreath and nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu were signed from the practice squad. Gilreath will wear No. 18 and Ta'amu No. 95. Also, the Steelers claimed defensive tackle Hebron Fangupo off waivers from Seattle.