By Dale Grdnic
With safety Troy Polamalu and Smith missing the bulk of last season, the Steelers defense faded in the fourth quarter throughout the latter half of the campaign. That hasn’t been the case this season. The Steelers easily finished the regular season with the best rush defense in the NFL and came close to setting a league record.
After giving up 43 yards on 17 carries to the Browns Sunday, the Steelers set a franchise record with the fewest yards rushing given up in a season (1,004) and fewest yards per game (62.8). That eclipsed the old mark of 1,125 yards allowed in a 12-game season in 1953. The former yards-per-game record was 74.7 in 2001. The Steelers came within 34 yards the NFL record in a 16-game season (970) by the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
“We lost a lot of close games in the fourth quarter last year,” Keisel noted, “and those are games that we’ve been used to winning. That was the biggest thing this year, because we stepped up to make the plays that we needed to in order to win games at the end. And that’s what good teams do.
“We’ve found ways to win. That’s for sure, but another thing is that we’ve had a lot of younger guys step in. (Maurkice) Pouncey has been unreal all year long, and those receivers (Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have played great on offense. Defensively, Ziggy (Hood) stepped in for Aaron and held his own.
“Hopefully, they’ll all continue to play well during the playoffs,” Keisel added. “We’re going to need everybody playing at a high level to be successful in the post-season. Last year, we just got in a funk, and that happens sometimes. But it’s one of those things, and we wanted to avoid that this year. So, we all stepped it up our games.”
The Steelers also were the only NFL team to give up just one run longer than 20 yards in 2010, and they allowed just two teams — the New York Jets (106) and New England Patriots (102) — to rush for more than 100 yards against them. No other team rushed for more than 75 yards. And they haven’t had any player rush for more than 100 yards more than once in the past 50 games.
Since a 39-26 loss to the Patriots on Nov. 14, the Steelers? defense did not allow more than one touchdown in each of their last seven games. They also led the NFL with 48 sacks, and tied for fifth with 21 interceptions. And Hood had one of those sacks against the Browns.
“It’s always nice to get a sack like that, but I hope to get more,” Hood said. “Maybe this will get me going, and I’ll get another one or two in the next game. We watched the tape of the Browns game, and my spin move looked pretty good on film I just have to keep doing it and hopefully get more like that.
“I think all the pieces are starting to fall in place for me. It’s just small things, like more technique work and things like that. All that can be taken care of during film work and in self-critique by me. So, I’ll keep working hard, trying to improve every day and hope it shows through on the field.”
Notes: Along with Smith, CB Bryant McFadden (abdominal strain), SS Troy Polamalu (lower leg) and RB Mewelde Moore (knee sprain) did not practice Tuesday. … WR Hines Ward and ILB James Farrior got the day off.