By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers have been known for having a hard-hitting defense for decades now, and other than a few sparkling seasons by their offense it has been a major reason for the franchise’s “Super” success.
This season has been no different. While the Steelers offense has had its moments to be sure, the defense has had just a couple bad games. It appears that the club’s offense is more equipped now to bail them out if necessary, the Steelers’ defensive players don’t believe it will be necessary.
“I think we’ve played at a high level all season, and it started at the beginning,” Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “I think the situation we went through early on really built up our character. We realized that we can win even without one of our main guys. I also think it brought us closer as a team.
“There’s no doubt those first four games really helped us out. Everybody took it upon themselves to step up during those games to make sure we were in a good place when Ben came back. (But) we didn’t pay too much attention to what everybody thought we’d be like during those games. We just wanted to win.”
There’s a reason the Steelers finished with the NFL’s second-ranked defense with 276.8 yards allowed per game. The stifling run defense nearly set an NFL record with just 62.8 yards given up per game. The pass defense was 12th, slightly higher than the middle of the pack, but the Steelers picked off 21 passes this season. That’s the most since 1996.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Ike Taylor said, acknowledging the accomplishment. “The difference is that we’re just catching the ball more. The linebackers, too. Everybody’s getting their hands on the ball, and that’s a good thing.
“(And) we know they’re going to come, but we have to be patient. We just have to be ready for them and get them. We’ve been getting our hands on the ball and holding on to it. And then we hope nobody takes it away if we get one.”
Strong safety Troy Polamalu led a group of nine different players with interceptions this season. He had seven. Taylor and six others had two each, but Taylor lost one pick that he returned for a touchdown when James Harrison was called for roughing the quarterback.
Along with Taylor, Harrison, Ryan Clark, Woodley, Bryant McFadden and Lawrence Timmons had two interceptions each. Brett Keisel and Anthony Madison had one each. Polamalu, Woodley and Keisel each returned a pick for a touchdown. Keisel returned his interception an amazing 79 yards.
Polamalu had the same number of interceptions in 2008, but some believe this has been his best season. He respectfully deflected that praise.
“Sometimes, you just have to be in the right spot,” Polamalu said. “I don’t know if it’s been my best year, but it definitely has been the most-challenging year given the circumstances that we’ve had on defense and on our team this year. (But) we play really good team defense. Everybody contributes.
“I don’t think we’ve changed our approach at all throughout the season. We gave up a lot of passing yardage to Drew Brees and Tom Brady, but I believe we’ve played pretty solid all year in the secondary. At least, that’s the way we feel. Sure, we’ve given up some yardage here and there, but not overall.”
Polamalu added that the increase in interceptions was based on a lot of factors, but the team’s style of play certainly has a lot to do with creating opportunities to make them
“I know that there’s styles of football that people play, and we’ve always been a defense with a smothering style,” Polamalu said. “A team like Tampa Bay or the Indianapolis Colts plays a lot differently than us or the Baltimore Ravens. … And when you have our type of defense, there’s not a lot of vision on the ball.
“In a style like the Indianapolis Colts, everybody has vision on the ball and can make plays on the ball. So, stylistically, it’s tough for us to make plays on the ball. But when you get a lot of quarterback pressures like we’ve had, you get more bad throws by opposing quarterbacks. So, that’s helped us out.”
Polamalu added that turnovers are the difference between winning and losing in the NFL, and it’s especially true with the way the Steelers play the game.
“If you take one away or give one more here or there in each game, we could be a 3-13 team instead of a 12-4 team,” Polamalu said. “And that’s the kind of ball that the Steelers play. We’re not a team to blow people out every week.
“The defense can’t give up 25 points and call it a good effort. So, we know that there’s a lot of pressure on us to make plays and force turnovers, and that affects the total outcome of the game. So, the games are all close at the end.”
This season, however, those close games have gone the Steelers’ way more times than not.
Notes: Bryant McFadden (abdomen), Troy Polamalu (lower leg), James Farrior, James Harrison, Hines Ward, Flozell Adams, Aaron Smith (triceps) and Mewelde Moore (knee) did not practice again Thursday. Adams, Ward, Harrison and Farrior were not injury-related. All are expected to practice Sunday for a 12:30-1 p.m. workout.