OpinionDecember 10, 2008

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Explaining the Rise of Pittsburgh’s Defense

By Pat Hunley

For years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have ranked near the top of the NFL in defense. They have ranked in the top three in rushing defense for four straight years and haven’t been ranked outside the top ten in total yards since the turn of the century. Regardless of what happens elsewhere on the team, the Steelers always manage to field a respected defense.

Not until this year, however, has their defense made the leap from respected to feared. It ranks in the top five in seemingly every defensive category and could become the first defense since 1991 to rank first in total yards, rushing yards, and passing yards per game. Amazingly, the Steelers have yet to allow a team to gain 300 total yards in a game; only nine teams give up less than 300 yards per game on average.

The last two weeks have shown the true power of Pittsburgh’s defense. Matt Cassel came into New England’s home game against Pittsburgh coming off two straight games with 400 yards passing. He didn’t break the 200 yard mark and turned the ball over four times. Tony Romo came into Sunday’s tilt in Pittsburgh with two straight 300-yard, 100+ quarterback rating games and left with 210 yards, four turnovers, and a 44.9 rating.

But why does this emergence come this year? It isn’t like the Steelers made significant personnel changes; outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley is the only new starter. No changes in coaching occurred either; Dick LeBeau has been the defensive coordinator for five straight years now.

It seems like their defense should be doing a worse job than normal considering the offense’s performance. The Steelers rank no higher than 23rd in any offensive yardage category and rank 20th in points per game.

There is only one explanation for Pittsburgh’s sudden rise to dominance: its secondary is healthy and has picked up its play. Sure, the rushing defense is also ranked No. 1, but the Steelers have had one of the NFL’s best rushing defenses since the dawn of time, and it hasn’t led to this level of play before.

The most revealing stat showing Pittsburgh’s secondary’s improvement is their opponents’ third down conversion rate. In past years, the Steelers would often force teams into 3rd and 6 or 7, but the quarterback would find the open man on third down to keep the drive going. This year, the Steelers aren’t letting that happen. Look at the Steelers’ performance on third down over the last four years.

YearConversion %NFL Rank

Not since 2004 have the Steelers stopped opponents on third down at a higher rate. That year, they ranked No. 1 in total defense and fourth in passing yards.

So Pittsburgh’s passing defense is finally proving to be the perfect complement to its rushing defense, but why? Part of this can be attributed to the emergence of Woodley and James Harrison as one of the best pass rushing duos in the league. Both rank in the top five in the league in sacks, and the Steelers are No. 1 in sacks after ranking 13th in the league a year ago.

But it isn’t that simple. The cornerbacks and safeties have to do their job too. At safety, the Steelers are benefitting from having both starting safeties at full health once again. Troy Polamalu leads the league in interceptions and has once again established himself as one of the league’s best safeties. But getting free safety Ryan Clark back from injury is playing a significant role as well. Anthony Smith and Tyrone Carter both struggled last year in relief, most notably in the loss to New England, and Clark has proven to be an excellent free agent pickup from the Redskins.

But the biggest improvement has come from the cornerbacks. All of them have elevated their play. Ike Taylor has long been the Steelers’ top corner, but he’s finally emerging as an elite option. Against Dallas, he held Terrell Owens to just three catches for 32 yards, and one of those catches came on a play when Romo had over eight seconds to scramble around in the pocket.

Longtime nickel back Bryant McFadden seems to have finally gained the coaching staff’s confidence as well. After being drafted four years ago with the intention of one day taking Deshea Townsend’s starting job, he finally did so this year. Not that Townsend hasn’t played well either. Despite probably not being taller than 5′ 6, Townsend is playing well right into his mid-30s. His interception return for a touchdown won the Dallas game earlier this week.

However, McFadden missed six games with a broken forearm, so clearly someone had to fill his spot. Meet William Gay, a 2007 fifth round pick out of Louisville. Despite the absence of McFadden and Townsend for Pittsburgh’s game against San Diego and the league’s top rated quarterback in Philip Rivers, the Steelers held Rivers to only 164 yards passing and a 44.4 QB rating. Part of that has to be attributed to Gay.

The Steelers currently rank 23rd in the league in running the ball. The last time they ranked that low, they finished 6-10. But instead of a losing record, the Steelers can clinch the AFC North next week if they beat Baltimore on the road. Pittsburgh has its ferocious defense, especially its secondary, to thank for that.

Pat Hunley is a Steelers fanatic and a Cafe addict who will attend the University of Missouri to study to be a sports journalist. You can always find Pat in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of steelerfan513.
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