By JUDY BATTISTA
The New York Times
January 7, 2012
PITTSBURGH — The obituary for a defense was swift and stinging.
“And done,” Brett Keisel, the bearded defensive end, helpfully added.
Actually, Warren Sapp, the almost certain future Hall of Fame defensive tackle who is an NFL Network and Showtime analyst, said it was over for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a jarring dismissal of the defense that was the N.F.L.’s best when the Steelers went to the Super Bowl last season. That defense has followed in the Pittsburgh tradition so seamlessly that the two Lombardi Trophies earned by this group stand in a hallway at the team offices beside the four won by the legendary Steel Curtain three decades ago.
But even in a place nicknamed Blitzburgh, Sapp’s critique seemed to have some merit, and it gained plenty of traction after the Steelers’ somnolent performance in a 35-7 season-opening loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
“It was fun to hear that, fun to have something to strive for other than beating ourselves,” safety Ryan Clark said. “Most years, that’s what it feels like, like you’re playing against the last Pittsburgh Steelers defense. All people know here is excellence. It was good to have those doubters, good to have those things to fight against. We relished it.”
So an odd thing happened on the way to N.F.L. irrelevance. By the end of the season, the Steelers were back to their familiar perch atop the league’s defenses, having changed nothing about their style but allowing the fewest yards and points — fewer than they allowed last season — in a season in which the dominant story line was often the absence of defense. For the fifth time in 11 seasons, the Steelers have the top defense, an astonishing stranglehold on opposing offenses that have rapidly changed with each season from balance to downfield bombs.
With an offense slowed even before Ben Roethlisberger sustained a high ankle sprain late in the season, and now lacking running back Rashard Mendenhall, who tore a knee ligament in the regular-season finale, and probably center Maurkice Pouncey, who aggravated a left ankle injury, the Steelers begin the playoffs at Denver on Sunday with a scouting report that could have been lifted from the 1970s.
The rest of the playoffs will be about the quarterbacking precision of the Packers, the Patriots and the Saints. The Steelers will be about James Harrison and Troy Polamalu hunting down quarterbacks. Same as it ever was.
“We’ve been around long enough to know one game is not a season,” Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, said of the first loss to the Ravens. “We let things sort themselves out and we concentrate on what we can control. Everybody has games they’re not proud of, and that is certainly one of ours.”
Still, there was an ephemeral feel about the Steelers last week that was about much more than the oddity of preparing to face an option quarterback (Tim Tebow) for what LeBeau said might be the first time since he was a Detroit Lions defensive back.
A healthy Steelers team could have been the favorite to retain the A.F.C. championship. But the Steelers’ fragility belies their statistics.
Injuries have wreaked havoc with the defense, forcing LeBeau to bind it with the football equivalent of rubber bands and duct tape, using nine starting lineups in 16 games and deploying the same four starting linebackers — the spine of the 3-4 defense — just five times.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons regularly plays inside. But LeBeau said that because of injuries, Timmons played four positions this season, sometimes two or three of them in one game. LeBeau will use another lineup Sunday, because Clark, who had started every game this season, will not play against the Broncos as a precaution because he possesses a sickle cell trait that leaves him at risk when playing at high altitude. The Steelers are used to delivering bruisings, but now they are the bruised, leaving them more vulnerable and less dominant than last season’s team.
Pittsburgh improved in passing yards allowed, yielding just 176 yards, compared with 214.1 last season. That, according to ProFootballFocus.com, which charts every play, is probably a testament to Harrison’s play when he has been healthy. (He missed five games to an eye injury and a suspension.)
In a formula that weighs sacks more heavily than hits and hurries, the Web site ranks Harrison as the second most productive 3-4 outside linebacker in the league, with 8 sacks, 9 hits and 21 hurries, particularly impressive because he rushes the quarterback on just 59.6 percent of all snaps.
But the Steelers have not been as successful against the run, allowing 99.8 yards a game, a long breakaway sprint worse than the 62.8 yards they allowed last season. That was jarring for a team traditionally so good against the run that opponents simply abandoned that part of the game.
More glaring is that the Steelers have produced just 15 turnovers, compared with 35 last season. As a result, the Steelers, despite a difficult schedule, feasted on teams with struggling offenses and inexperienced quarterbacks — Seneca Wallace, Blaine Gabbert, Kellen Clemens and Tyler Palko, among others — but lost three out of the four games they played against good offenses, beating only Tom Brady and New England but losing to Houston and to Baltimore twice.
The Ravens put together the most singeing drive of the season on Nov. 6, with the Steelers holding a 20-16 lead at home with 2 minutes 24 seconds remaining and a chance to seize control of the A.F.C. North. Baltimore began the drive at its 8, usually a typical moment for the Steelers’ defense to sack the quarterback or intercept a pass.
Instead, Joe Flacco marched Baltimore 13 plays — all passes — and 92 yards, completing a 26-yard touchdown pass on third-and-10. The drive left Heinz Field in stunned silence and signaled that if time had not yet passed by the Steelers’ defense as Sapp had predicted, it might at least be getting close.
“We are older as compared to other teams,” Clark said. “We know we have 30-year-old starters. If you go around the league and ask, ‘Would you take 30-year-old Troy Polamalu or 30-year-old Brett Keisel or Casey Hampton or James Farrior?’ a lot of teams would say, ‘Heck, yeah, we’ll take them all.’ ”
Clark could be correct, given that some of the Steelers’ oldest players — Keisel, Harrison, Polamalu — were also their best this season.
Pittsburgh’s locker room is festooned with children’s toys: Ping-Pong and billiards tables, and sometimes a basketball court marked off on the carpet in athletic tape. But against one wall last week, the longtime nose tackle Aaron Smith talked about considering retirement. He is 35 and missed 12 games after neck surgery. It made the room elegiac, with the implication that this could be among the last playoff runs for the core of players who have won two Super Bowls since 2006.
The Steelers have forestalled the march of time by building through the draft, so each player is familiar with the system by the time he becomes a starter. It will happen against Sunday. Farrior, who turned 37 on Friday, said he was excited to see safety Ryan Mundy, drafted in 2008, in place of Clark.
“We’re going to keep going on until we can’t go anymore,” Farrior said.
They are not done yet.