Steelers rediscover defensive swagger, capture first win of season
Five seasons ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl by intimidating offenses, running the ball with purpose and mixing it up with big plays through the air.
In 2013, the Steelers started the year 0-4 because they could not keep offenses from scoring. The fear that came with playing the Black And Gold began fading away as the losses piled up.
In finally getting its first win of the year, a 19-6 road victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, Pittsburgh rediscovered its bully reputation.
"It's a good feeling," coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. "Not like we won the lottery, obviously, but a good feeling nonetheless."
For the Steelers, good feelings have come as result of giving opponents not-so-good feelings. On Sunday, they accomplished that through hits and turnovers. After going four consecutive weeks without taking the ball away from the offense, Pittsburgh's defense did so twice against the Jets, both via costly interceptions from rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
The first happened after the Steelers offense scored the game's only touchdown, a 55-yard bomb from Ben Roethlisberger to Emmanuel Sanders. After leading New York down the field and threatening to be a hero for the second straight week, Smith threw into triple coverage to tight end Konrad Reuland, who ran a deep corner route near the end zone. Safety Ryan Clark picked off the pass, and the Jets would not score again.
When it looked like they might, Smith once again gave the ball away. With just over three minutes remaining in the game, New York was in position to score at Pittsburgh's 12-yard line. Rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones applied heavy pressure, hitting Smith as he threw a weak pass that ended up in Lawrence Timmons' arms for a turnover that sealed the game.
"We maintained possession of the football and we got the football," Tomlin said. "We got the football in the red area and took points off the board."
While Tomlin celebrated the turnovers themselves, Clark was just happy to end the talk that swirled around them.
"I don't know if I'm more excited that we actually got [the turnover] and it helped us win the game or that ya'll can stop asking about it," Clark said.
Clark, who took some shots at reporters after the game for what he felt was an unfair characterization of his comments about Roethlisberger's play this season, and backfield teammate Ike Taylor both downplayed turnovers and highlighted tackling when asked about what has made the Steelers defense one of the best in the league during the 2000s.
Clark almost had another pick in the fourth quarter, but a Smith pass intended for wide receiver Jeremy Kerley bounced off Clark's helmet. According to Clark and Taylor, getting to the ballcarrier and bringing him down is more important than going for interceptions.
"It's hard to hold a team under 200 yards passing," Taylor said. "It's hard to hold a team under 80 yards rushing."
The Steelers almost accomplished both on Sunday, as the Jets finished with 83 rushing yards and 184 through the air.
When they weren't forcing turnovers, the Steelers were hitting hard. Safety Troy Polamalu, who has contributed to Pittsburgh's defensive reputation perhaps more than any other individual player besides James Harrison, leveled receiver Stephen Hill after a 20-yard catch at the end of the first half. Hill remained on the ground, writhing in discomfort, but eventually returned to the game. Overall, the Steelers recorded three sacks and a forced fumble.
Regardless of which statistics are more important, forcing turnovers is essential to winning, and Pittsburgh must do better than just two turnovers in a five-game span. Not every opposing quarterback will be a rookie still learning the ins and outs of the NFL game.
A week after leading the Jets to an upset win in Atlanta, Smith looked very much like a rookie. He finished 19-of-34 with 204 yards passing, the aforementioned two interceptions and zero touchdowns. The game marked the fourth time this season that Smith has finished with two or more interceptions.
Offensively, the Steelers also played the way we've expected them to play. Roethlisberger had to evade pressure throughout the game, but moved the ball down the field, finishing with 23-of-30 with 264 yards and the touchdown to Sanders. He also showed off some vintage Roethlisberger moves, escaping from the grasp of defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson for what would have been a first-quarter safety.
The offense consistently picked on Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who suffered a knee injury last Thursday but said it did not bother him during the game. He covered Sanders on the touchdown and ultimately lost a game-long battle with Antonio Brown, who finished with nine receptions for 86 yards.
The running game could not get going against a top-five rushing defense, as Le'Veon Bell finished with only 34 yards on 16 carries, but Roethlisberger made enough plays through the air to Brown, Sanders and safety net tight end Heath Miller to keep the offense efficient.
After a complete team win, there was plenty of optimism and hopeful language emanating from the Steelers.
"The men in this locker room believe that there's a chance that something great can come out of this if we all work toward it," said defensive end Brett Keisel.
It's way too early to think that is possible. Pittsburgh is still last in the AFC North and must go on a lengthy winning streak to even think about competing for one of the six playoff spots, but 1-4 is certainly better than 0-5. If they can continue channeling what made them an example of consistency in the NFL over the past decade, the Steelers could be on to something.