Patriots, Colts, no and no ... Try the Steelers
Sunday, November 11, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
As a four-time Pro Bowl player, as a Super Bowl MVP, as he bears down on the final Steelers receiving records not yet his, it takes a lot to impress Hines Ward.
Last Sunday night ranked among them. Ward sat on the dais that displayed the living, breathing members of the all-time Steelers team at their 75th Season gala. He gathered with an offense that included Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Franco Harris. He could look to his right and see Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Mel Blount. All Hall of Famers, all from the same team.
Ward wondered who might win a game if that offense could play that defense.
"You take those two and play each other, it would be hard to pick,'' Ward said. "I can't answer that, but that's something I would love to see."
What he can do is take a look at the current Steelers defense because they're imitating some of their defenses of the past.
The Steelers defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL as they prepare to move into the second half of their season today when they play the surprising Cleveland Browns (5-3) at Heinz Field at 1 p.m.
It's familiar territory for their defenses, which finished first in the NFL in 2004 and 2001 and has been in the league's top 10 in each of the previous seven seasons.
This defense of Dick LeBeau has taken it to new extremes, and if it continues on its half-season path will rank not only among the franchise's best but do something few
defenses have done in the NFL over the past 30 years.
The Steelers lead the league in points allowed with 98, on pace to allow 196. Only a handful of teams have given up fewer than 200 points in a season since the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games in 1978, including the Steelers Super Bowl champs of that year at 195.
Tampa Bay, where Mike Tomlin served as secondary coach, was the last to do it when the Bucs allowed 196 in 2002 and won a Super Bowl. The great Baltimore defense of 2000 allowed just 165 points and won a Super Bowl. The Ravens that year upset the Titans in the playoffs after Tennessee allowed just 191 points that season.
No other NFL team had allowed fewer than 200 points between those teams and the famous Chicago Bears defenses of 1985 (198 and a Super Bowl win) and 1986 (187).
Perhaps the current names aren't as famous as those from even the Blitzburgh defenses of the 1990s, but the group of Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, James Farrior and their newest star, James Harrison, are playing just as well if not better.
The NFL's stingiest of them all
"You look on paper and you see some of the defenses we had and you look on paper and compare them to the defense we have now," Ward suggested. "It's kind of hard to compare when you have Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson and all those guys. We don't have a lot of big name guys on our team but we have a solid defense."
That defense will be tested again today against a Browns offense ranked No. 4 in the league, one that can throw offensive standouts named Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Jamal Lewis at the Steelers.
Would this Steelers defense rank among the team's better ones, at least post-Steel Curtain?
"It would be hard to compare, but it's definitely up there with them,'' Aaron Smith said.
"You can't say that because there are only eight games in,'' linebacker Larry Foote said. "A lot can happen."
For sure. The Steelers must play at New England Dec. 9, which if all holds true will feature the NFL's No. 1 offense vs. its No. 1 defense. But they also play four of the more impotent offenses in the league -- the Dolphins, Jets, Ravens and Jaguars.
Nose tackle Chris Hoke, who has been part of the defense since 2001, said the scheme isn't much different under LeBeau today than it was then.
"It's pretty much the same defense as it was under Tim Lewis,'' said Hoke of the coordinator who preceded LeBeau. "For the most part, the base defense is the same. Every year we add a couple new blitzes, but the defenses we run the majority of the time are the same ones we ran when I was a rookie."
And LeBeau scoffs at all the talk that his defense plays more cover 2 this season. He said his defenses have always run plenty of cover 2, a two-deep safety style Tomlin favored when in Tampa and last year as the Vikings coordinator.
Cleveland's Edwards said what impresses him most about this Steelers defense is its energy.
"You guys are playing with a lot of excitement, a lot of energy and a lot of love and enjoyment for the game. For the defense, they just get guys off the field. That is their whole mentality ... That is what their strength is. They get guys three and out. They get them off the field. They get their defense off the field. They keep their defense rested and they put the ball in the offense's hand quite a bit and they have a good offense.
"The more you do that, the more you demean a team until they give up."