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lamberts-lost-tooth
12-08-2007, 05:48 AM
NFL Showdown: Steelers defense excels against run and pass
Saturday, December 08, 2007
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It is a daunting task. An assignment few people thought possible. Nobody gave them much of a chance, not with all those injuries. Shoot, they can't even intercept the ball.

Stop Tom Brady and the New England Patriots?

Nah, tougher than that.

Lead the NFL in pass defense.

That's something nobody thought possible with the Steelers' secondary.

"We don't want any credit, not as long as we keep doing what we're capable of doing," said cornerback Ike Taylor. "But if we were 23rd in the league, someone would say something about it."

But there they are, sitting at the top of the league in pass defense, having allowed just three 200-yard passers, only one pass longer than 40 yards and only 154 passing yards per game -- numbers no other NFL team can exceed.

And it's not as if teams are staying away from the pass because they have so much success running the ball. The Steelers are second in the league in rush defense (76.8) and have allowed just two 100-yard rushers in the past 62 games.

The Steelers have been doing each equally well, the reason they are ranked No. 1 in the league in total defense (230.8 yards per game).

"The biggest thing we've been doing is not allowing big plays," said nickel back Bryant McFadden. "We play against a lot of different offenses and most offenses prey on the big play."

With four games remaining, the Steelers (9-3) have a chance to do something they've never managed in franchise history -- lead the NFL in all three categories.

But their secondary -- and lofty ranking -- will be put to the test tomorrow against the unbeaten Patriots (12-0), who have the league's No. 1 quarterback and passing attack (304 yards per game).

The Steelers have led the NFL in total defense five times since such statistics started being kept in 1970, most recently 2004. In two seasons (1974, 1990), they led the league in pass defense.

But they have never led the league in all three defensive categories -- total, rush and pass -- at the same time. The last team to do that was the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles.

"We play what they ask us to play and we feed off each other," said safety Tyrone Carter, who is expected to start his third game in a row for injured Troy Polamalu. "Our defensive scheme is so that it relies on us to be sound in the back end. If not, and we give up a play, it's gone, it's a home run."

Some teams appear to stop the run -- at least, statistically -- because opponents can throw easily against their secondary. Or they appear to stop the pass -- at least, statistically -- because opponents gain lots of yards on the ground.

Case in point: The Minnesota Vikings rank No. 1 in the league against the rush because teams pass against their No. 32-ranked secondary. The Miami Dolphins rank third in the league against the pass because opponents run the ball against their No. 32 run defense.

Also, there are teams who play well in one area and not the other, such as the Indianapolis Colts, who rank No. 2 in total defense and pass defense but 18th against the run.

The Steelers, though, do both. And they do it better than any team.

"We're getting good pressure and sacks on the quarterback from the guys up front and we're pretty good at stopping the run," said outside linebacker James Harrison. "We have a good front seven that we can use to stop the run instead of throwing an eighth guy into the box to stop the run."

But the secondary does not get a lot of recognition because the Steelers rank next to last in the league with eight interceptions. Only the Eagles have fewer (7).

That, though, is a byproduct of the No. 1 commandment of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau: Don't allow the big play. The Steelers have been an obedient sort, allowing just one pass play longer than 40 yards -- a 56-yard flea-flicker by the New York Jets on their second play from scrimmage. No other NFL team can boast so few.

They have also allowed only three 200-yard passers this season -- none in the past five games -- tied for fewest in the league with the Colts, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

"When you play in the secondary, sometimes you want to take gambles," McFadden said. "But coach [LeBeau] always says, 'If the play comes to you, it comes to you ... don't try to make something out of nothing.' We're trying to be patient and not trying to anticipate something when it's not there. We're letting the play come to us. It brought us this far and we need to continue to do that."

They've also been able to do it despite a host of injuries in the secondary. Polamalu is expected to miss his third game in a row and fourth this season because of a sprained knee, free safety Ryan Clark is on injured reserve with a spleen injury, and McFadden missed three games with a sprained ankle.

"To play good team defense, you have to be an unselfish person," LeBeau said. "Our guys are doing a good job of that."

Better than anyone imagined.