By Jeff Legwold
The Denver Post
January 4, 2012
St. Louis Rams is tackled by lineback James Farrior #51 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game at Heinz Field on December 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
As if playing in their first playoff game in six years isn't enough on their plate, the Broncos will be wrestling with a fair share of NFL history in the first-round game Sunday.
The Broncos will line up against the idea that season after season, player after player, hot new trend after hot new trend, the Pittsburgh Steelers have chiseled out a way to play great defense. It's a a big reason the Steelers have won the Super Bowl six times.
"Pittsburgh just kind of breeds that. It's been that way for a long time," said Broncos coach John Fox, who started his NFL coaching career on Chuck Noll's staff in Pittsburgh. "They've had continuity, especially in their coaches. Guys buy into it. It's kind of a rough-and-tough area all the way back to the '70s with the Steel Curtain."
The Steelers (12-4) are bringing this season's top-ranked NFL defense to Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's group led the league in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense.
Pittsburgh's "down" category this season was run defense, finishing eighth-best in the 32-team league in rushing yards allowed.
Since the start of the 2004 season, the Steelers have led the NFL in total defense four times and in scoring defense four times.
In their Super Bowl runner-up season of 2010, the Steelers led the league in eight defensive categories — including a franchise record for run defense, allowing an average of only 62.8 yards rushing per game.
"It's (having) the right personnel," said Broncos tight end Dante Rosario. "They definitely have a certain type of players they want in there and I'd say over the years they continue to get those players in there."
Since starting a procession into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with their dominant four-time Super Bowl champion Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s, the Steelers have won with continuity in human resources as well as in defensive playbooks.
The Rooney family has owned the franchise since its inception. And since 1969, the Steelers have had only three head coaches — Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. Each embraced the idea of winning with defense. The Steelers have used a version of their 3-4 alignment on defense since 1992, Cowher's first season in charge.
"All those years, they've always looked for similar type players and when things change so often around them, they are consistently still out there looking for the same guys. And they've been really good at finding them," Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "They keep playing that way year after year and Dick, well, Dick is a walking encyclopedia on how to play defensive football."
LeBeau, who's in his second stint with the Steelers, is a key part of their remarkable run of excellence on defense. He was a member of Cowher's staff as a defensive backs coach. Cowher, Capers and LeBeau outlined the Steelers' switch to the 3-4 defense just before training camp opened in 1992.
Before that switch was made, Capers and the defensive staff had two playbooks — one for the 4-3 and one for the 3-4. Years later, LeBeau and Capers said going with the 3-4 defense full time was a watershed moment in Pittsburgh building a consistent defensive force. It's a head-on approach that can be seen in Tomlin's response this week when he was asked by a reporter what challenges the Denver offense presents. "We had better get them behind the chains," Tomlin said. "Stopping the run is a prerequisite for us playing the kind of ball we desire to play in terms of getting after the quarterback."
Said Fox of the Steelers: "They find tough players. It takes tough-minded people to play good defense. It's effective and it's been effective for them."
Jeff Legwold: firstname.lastname@example.org