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Defense helping Steelers avoid losses to bad teams

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ ability to protect their home turf and defeat the Cleveland Browns 30-9 Sunday is significant in more ways than one.

Week 10 of the 2015 NFL season was not an easy one for home teams. Visitors won 10 of the 13 Sunday games. Perhaps the most shocking was the Lions’ 18-16 win over the Packers, their first victory at Lambeau Field since 1991.

That makes the Steelers’ 12-game home winning streak over the Browns the NFL’s second-longest. The Colts have beaten the Texans 13 straight times at Indianapolis.

Seven days earlier, Ben Roethlisberger was supposed to be out “at least a few weeks” with a midfoot sprain. On Sunday Roethlisberger replaced an injured Landry Jones and threw for 379 yards, the most in NFL history by a quarterback who didn’t start, and three touchdowns.

The Steelers (6-4) would be the No. 5 seed in the playoffs if the season ended after 10 weeks. They’re in this spot despite Roethlisberger missing four games and Le’Veon Bell’s season ending after just five and a half games.

While the Steelers’ ability to overcome injuries to Roethlisberger, Bell, Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum is commendable, it’s obscuring another feather in their cap.

It seems the Steelers have finally kicked the habit of losing to inferior competition.

Every year since 2012, the Steelers have lost to at least one team that finished the season 4-12. In both 2012 and 2013 they lost at Oakland, which finished 4-12 in both seasons. Last season, the Steelers lost on the road to the Jets (4-12) and most infamously at home to the Buccaneers (2-14).

Those losses cost the Steelers playoff berths in 2012 and 2013. Last season, the Steelers could have avoided the ill-fated wild-card meeting against the Ravens with one more win.

The Steelers have avoided those kinds of losses this season. Sort of.

They lost at home to the Ravens (2-7) and at Kansas City (4-5). But they were quarterbacked by Mike Vick against the Ravens and the Chiefs have won three in a row, including Sunday at Denver, since their 1-5 start. So they’re not such a pushover anymore.

Roethlisberger-led Steelers teams have taken care of business against the 49ers (3-6) and Browns this season.

Sunday’s margin of victory was the Steelers’ biggest against the Browns since they won 41-9 at Cleveland in the 2010 season finale, and their Week 9 win over the Raiders also harkens back to the 2010 season because it’s the first time they’ve beaten the Raiders since then.

This doesn’t suggest that the Steelers have the talent of the 2010 AFC champions. With all the injuries the Steelers have suffered this season the Super Bowl should be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. But the 2010 squad was the last Steelers team to win a playoff game. These historical benchmarks, as well as some defensive traits not seen since that year, are an encouraging sign that the 2015 Steelers could save the franchise from its first five-year span without a playoff win since before Chuck Noll was hired in 1969.

This assumes that Roethlisberger’d body avoids further trauma the rest of the way, and that’s a big assumption considering how injury-prone the Steelers have been this season,

That epidemic seems to have largely spared the defense. While the Steelers’ 27th-ranked pass defense allowed Johnny Manziel to throw for 372 yards, more than double his career high, the Steelers sacked him six times. They’re fourth in the league with 28 sacks and they’re on pace for 44, which would be their highest total since the 2010 team recorded 48. The Steelers also forced three more turnovers. That’s 18 takeaways this season, tied for fifth in the NFL. The Steelers haven’t had more than 20 since the 2010 team induced 35.

The Steelers’ infusion of youth on defense could be a reason they’re snatching the ball more. The defense lacked a certain tenacity with all those 30-something veterans hanging on. Now, 15.5 of the team’s 28 sacks have come from players 26 or younger who either were first or second-round draft picks. Stephon Tuitt, drafted in the second round last year, leads the team with 4.5. Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree both have four and Ryan Shazier has three.

Unlike the Steelers’ sack leaders, Mike Mitchell isn’t homegrown. But the 28-year-old leads the team with three interceptions and is turning out to be a wise free-agent signing after a disappointing 2014.

The Steelers combined for five turnovers in their 2012 and 2013 losses to the Raiders and last year’s losses to the Bucs and Jets. That’s on par with the 20-per-season ceiling that’s existed since 2011. This year, the Steelers have forced four takeaways in their wins over the 49ers and Browns.

Perhaps all those losses to underdogs wasn’t such a mystery. It could have been their passive defense.

The Steelers, Roethlisberger in particular, now have a bye week to lick their wounds. Then four of their final six games are on the road. They go to Seattle in Week 12, host Indianapolis in Week 13 then go to Cincinnati in Week 14. If they can survive that brutal stretch, they get the suddenly vulnerable Broncos at home then finish the season at Baltimore and Cleveland.

With nothing else to play for by that time, the Ravens and Browns likely will be motivated to dash the Steelers’ playoff hopes. But as long as Roethlisberger is still upright and the defense remains aggressive, those are games the Steelers should win.

If they can take care of business then, there will be bigger business to take care of in the playoffs.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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