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Old 12-09-2008, 08:14 AM   #1
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Default Turnovers help Steelers' defense make a point

Turnovers help Steelers' defense make a point
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The question facing the Steelers as they prepare for their AFC North Division showdown Sunday in Baltimore: Does their defense need to score as many touchdowns as their offense to win?

And, what happens when they don't produce five turnovers in a game?

The defense held the head of its offense above water again in a 20-13 victory Sunday against Dallas at Heinz Field, and it did so using the turnover as a weapon for the second consecutive game, most specifically interceptions. They have five in the past two games, one returned for the winning touchdown by Deshea Townsend against the Cowboys and another returned 89 yards by linebacker Lawrence Timmons to the 1 in New England.

The Steelers are hanging onto the football this season on defense as if their very playoff lives depend on it, and they might. They have 16 interceptions, one season after their worst record for intercepting passes in the history of the franchise.

Defenders intercepted 11 passes last season, the fewest since they managed 10 in 1955. The record low was nine in '40 and they also had 11 interceptions in '39.

But they played 11 games in '39 and '40, 12 in '55 and opponents passed much less than half the time as the 536 passes the Steelers faced last season.

Interceptions are up and so are sacks (45, compared to 36 all of last season) and the two might go hand in hand; combined, they have helped make the Steelers not only the No. 1 defense in the NFL but perhaps its most feared.

"It means a lot," safety Troy Polamalu said of the increased interceptions. "For everybody, especially the front seven, they know they're getting pressure.

"A lot of times quarterbacks get gun shy when you start picking the ball off. It lets guys eat up front, or it's vice versa. It's really nice."

Polamalu alone accounts for more than the difference this season. He leads the league with seven interceptions after getting none last season when he played through several injuries and also missed five games.

Linebacker James Harrison, who tied the Steelers season record with 15 sacks, believes the extra pressure put on the quarterback has helped increase the interceptions.

"I guess you can attribute it to the front -- the D-Line, the outside guys and the inside guys when we blitz," Harrison said. "Getting pressure on the quarterback and sometimes the confusion that maybe they think they're getting pressure and they're just trying to get it out before someone gets to them."

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley thinks it might be the other way around.

"The secondary does a good job of covering, not allowing the quarterback to have an opportunity to pass the ball," said Woodley, who has 11 1/2 sacks. "It gives the outside linebackers a little more time to go in there and make big-time plays."

Or maybe it's just the eye-catching football they use in practice during individual drills. The defensive backs see footballs painted with strategic white stripes that make them focus more on the ball. It was the idea of secondary coach Ray Horton. Maybe that is not the reason for the increase, but there is cause and effect.

Even Ike Taylor, who has dropped three or four interceptions this season, came up with an interception against Dallas, his first of the season.

"We're all playmakers," said Townsend, who has two interceptions, tied for second on the team with Bryant McFadden. "We have guys who know how to go out there and make plays. You just have to hold onto it."

That has been easier said than accomplished. But now they are on pace to top 20 for the first time since they nabbed 23 in 1996.

"We had opportunities last year, we just didn't catch them," Polamalu reasoned for the increase.

And what does leading the league mean for him with seven interceptions?

"Ten and three, that's what it means to me," Polamalu said.

He might be on to something.

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