Improving Steelers defense could get better
By F. Dale Lolley
After beating the defending Super Bowl champions on the road, the Steelers head into the second half of the schedule with a critical four-game stretch that could make or break this season.
Following next Monday night’s game at Heinz Field against Kansas City, the Steelers play three consecutive AFC North games, including a home-and-away series with Baltimore.
Considering the Steelers (5-3) currently sit one game behind Baltimore (6-2) in the standings, it’s not a stretch to say those two games could decide the division championship.
First, the Steelers have to take care of business against the Chiefs (1-7), a team averaging just 16.6 points per game, 30th in the league.
For a surging Pittsburgh defense it could be just the right time to get All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu back in the lineup.
Polamalu played in the Steelers’ opener at Denver before sitting out the next two weeks with a strained calf. He returned to play in Pittsburgh’s 16-14 win Oct. 7, but left in the first half after aggravating the calf injury.
The Steelers had targeted the game against the Chiefs as a possible return date for Polamalu, but at the least should have him back on the field for a Nov. 18 meeting at Heinz Field against Baltimore.
After holding the Giants to 182 yards in a 24-20 victory Sunday, the Steelers adding another piece to the defensive puzzle could be a scary proposition for opposing offenses.
Now leading the league in total defense, allowing 262.6 yards per game and having closed out their last three opponents in the fourth quarter, the Steelers’ defense appears to be back on track after a slow start.
“I don’t think we ever went anywhere, truth be told,” said linebacker LaMarr Woodley. “We’re all just doing what we are supposed to do. We’re just playing Steeler football. We’re just happy to get some things together.”
After allowing nine fourthquarter scoring drives in their first five games, the Steelers have given up just one in their last three games – a field goal to Washington in a 27-12 blowout. Not coincidentally, the Steelers have won all three of those games.
“We’re starting to play together as a team, which is what it takes to beat good teams,” said defensive end Brett Keisel. “We’re starting to get better.”
That was never more apparent than against a Giants’ offense that entered Sunday’s game averaging nearly 400 yards and more than 29 points per game.
Quarterback Eli Manning is considered one of the best fourth-quarter quarterbacks in the NFL, having led the Giants from behind to wins in nine games since the start of the 2011 season.
Against the Steelers Sunday, the Giants had three possessions in the fourth quarter. They resulted in nine offensive plays and three punts. Manning, who leads the NFL with 2,446 passing yards, finished 10 of 24 passing for 125 yards, his lowest total since throwing for 123 yards in a 2008 loss against Philadelphia.
“ Sometimes, you have those games, and obviously they’re a good defense,” said Manning. “They’re talented and they do a great job with the defense mixing up the looks.”
The Steelers could get even better with Polamalu’s return. “We’re finishing the game now,” said Woodley, who had a sack-strip of Manning to end the Giants’ final possession. “I mean, that’s the biggest thing.
“I expect it all the time. Sometimes we put ourselves in bad situations, but we keep the game close.”
Odds and end zones
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes against the Giants and now has 201 in his career. ... The victory was the 60th for head coach Mike Tomlin. He tied Chuck Knox as the fourth-fastest coach to reach 60 wins in 88 games behind George Siefert (75), Joe Gibbs (84) and Mike Ditka (85). ... The Steelers are 3-0 against NFC teams this season. They are the only AFC team that is unbeaten against the NFC.