By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Whether it’s called the Steel Curtain, the Big Nasty “D” or a group of 60-minute men, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense has been dominant through two games and heading into the club’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday at 1 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
The Steelers have recorded six sacks, four interceptions, four forced fumbles and 21 quarterback hurries or pressures while giving up just 20 total points. And a late drive last week at Tennessee produced the only touchdown.
But questions remain: Where would the past two games rate among the all-time best, particularly after forcing seven turnovers last week at Tennessee, and where does this season’s defense rank in that regard?
“It’s hard to pinpoint one (game) that’s been the most dominant, but … it’s got to be in the top 4-5 hands down,” Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden said. “Right now, I could say that we’ve had some outstanding performances, but from a turnover standpoint I can’t recall when we’ve had more turnovers.”
McFadden and inside linebacker Larry Foote were not with the Steelers last season, leaving the team that drafted them via free agency, but both returned after one year away. Strong safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith basically weren’t around last season, either, as both missed extensive time with knee and shoulder injuries, respectively.
When all four were in the starting lineup in 2008, however, the Steelers were the No. 1 defense in the NFL — first in all but one major category — and on their way to winning the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl trophy.
“As far as comparisons to 2008 go, I’d prefer that we slowed the roll on that because we’ve only played two games so far,” Smith said. “The biggest test is how we hold up over the course of a season. If we’re still talking about this in November and December, then that’s the true test. So, I don’t think we’ve done anything yet, but we definitely have the talent and ability.
“We have what it takes to have a great defense. The proof is in the pudding, though, so we’ll see where we are down the road. I think what makes this defense so good is that the core group of guys has stayed together for a number of years, and the guys understand how this defense plays. And that really helps us when we get out onto the field sometimes.”
The Steelers certainly are more physical than they were last season, and McFadden believed that the opposition had to be hurting after playing them.
“I would imagine that they have to be sore on Mondays, because we’re sore and we’re the ones doing the hitting and throwing our bodies around,” McFadden said. “And they’re the ones receiving it. So, I would imagine that they’re the ones feeling it after the game and maybe even a couple days later.
“Coach Tomlin says he wants a violent team that plays within the rules, but be aggressive from a defensive standpoint. We want to be attackers and play with no seat belts. We don’t drive the speed limit, and we don’t wear seat belts when we’re out there playing. So, that’s what we need to continue to do.”
Tampa Bay is 2-0 by playing solid defense, but its offense has misfired for the most part — similar to the Steelers — with young Josh Freeman at quarterback and Cadillac Williams at running back. The top receiver is tight end Kellen Winslow with eight catches that moved the sticks. One expects Steelers D-coordinator Dick LeBeau to baffle Freeman with various blitzes and coverages.
Many believe that Polamalu is the key, and while he has had several spectacular plays — two picks and an amazing goal-line leap to stop quarterback Kerry Collins behind the line last week — he has been as humble as ever while discussing his and the team’s defensive prowess.
“We played a pretty good game last week, but there’s always room for improvement,” Polamalu said. “We really haven’t played as well as we can play, so we want to keep working at it and getting better every week. If we still say that we’re playing well a month or two from now, then we’ll be all right.
“But it’s too early, and we have too much to accomplish that this point. (And) that leap was just one play. It was one good play before they scored. (But) that’s the thing about defense. You need to play four great plays in order to be successful, because if you have just one lapse the other team can score.”
When told that Tampa Bay quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt believed Polamalu baited the quarterbacks before his interceptions this year, the Steelers safety said he was getting too much credit and then proceeded to laud Ravens safety Ed Reed for his ability to jump routes and make big plays.
“Somebody at my level has to rely on being at the right spot at the right time,” Polamalu understated. He then was told that many believe his level is higher than every NFL safety, including Reed.
“Yeah, you find me that (person), and I’ll find you a liar,” Polamalu said, pretending to be serious.
Steelers defensive captain James Farrior begged to differ.
“I think everybody is playing much better on the field, and we haven’t had too many communication breakdowns,” Farrior said. “That’s what it’s all about, communicating out there. There’s 10 other guys chirping with me the whole game, so that helps us play a lot better. And we’ve played pretty well so far.
“But that makes my job a lot easier when all the guys know exactly what to do and what calls should be made in certain situations. We pretty much have the same core of guys who have been around here a long time with Troy and Aaron healthy again and B-Mac and Foote coming back. They make a difference.”
Whether or not they make the Steelers defense No. 1 remains to be seen.
Notes: Injured starters Max Starks (ankle) and Casey Hampton (hamstring) are expected to return this week at left offensive tackle and nose tackle, respectively, but right offensive guard Trai Essex (ankle) will be replaced by Doug Legursky. Left offensive guard Chris Kemoeatu (left knee) was injured late in practice Thursday, but said initial tests revealed no damage. So, he should be ready to play against the Bucs after a couple days of rest.