Reserves leading improved Steelers' secondary

PITTSBURGH (AP) Cam Heyward has a theory on what drives Pittsburgh Steeler teammates Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, and it has nothing to do with their ability as defensive backs and everything to do with the numbers on a tape measure.

''Brice has got that Little Man Syndrome,'' Heyward said. ''He's very hard on himself. He always wants to play big. Blake's got it too.''

McCain and Blake are both listed at 5-foot-9 and have spent their careers trying to prove they can be effective against bigger, taller and sometimes faster wide receivers. They're winning as many battles as they are losing these days, one of the main reasons the Steelers (11-5) used a perfect December to capture their first AFC North title since 2010.

It's heady territory for two players who were backup plans at best when the season began. Yet there they were in the division-clinching win over Cincinnati last Sunday, creating all three Bengal turnovers that helped Pittsburgh earn homefield advantage for Saturday's wild-card game against Baltimore. Both of McCain's interceptions and Blake's pivotal fourth-quarter fumble recovery came while blanketing Cincinnati superstar wide receiver A.J. Green, who just happens to be 6-4. Not that it mattered much.

''We've got to play big,'' McCain said. ''It's a mindset. You've got to be able to jump, got to be able to put hands on receivers. We work very hard. Stature is nothing. We work hard every day. We're going to continue to make plays.''

The Steelers will need them to if Pittsburgh wants to make it to Denver next weekend. While the numbers aren't particularly impressive - the Steelers finished 27th in the NFL in yards passing allowed - the catastrophic mistakes that cost them earlier in the season have largely vanished. Since Green torched them with 224 yards receiving on Dec. 7, Pittsburgh has put the lid back on top of a defense that is starting to look respectable if not quite dominant.

And the Steelers are doing it with unfamiliar faces. Cornerback Ike Taylor has missed most of the season with a broken forearm and shoulder issues. Troy Polamalu has played just three times since the first weekend of November due to a knee injury. Both practiced on Wednesday though it's uncertain if they will be active even if doctors clear them to return. As strange as it sounds, Pittsburgh has been better with them out of the lineup. The Steelers gave up 15 passing plays of 40 yards or more this season - the second-highest total in the league - but none the last two weeks.

Coach Mike Tomlin understands the urge to point out the missteps that can shift momentum in an instant but believes the productivity he's seen from the secondary has been steadily building since October.

''These guys have been on the come for a number of months and really they're just getting solid,'' Tomlin said. ''They're minimizing big plays and they're making plays of their own.''

Pittsburgh generated seven turnovers during its four-game sprint to the postseason. McCain, thrust into the starting lineup when Taylor went down and Cortez Allen struggled with his healthy and his confidence, tied William Gay for the team lead with three interceptions. Blake, used primarily as a nickelback, racked up 43 tackles despite seeing a limited number of snaps. Veteran Will Allen has filled in capably for Polamalu, making up for in responsible decisions what he lacks in Polamalu's occasionally brilliant instincts.

The Steelers are doing less gambling these days. If that means backing off a bit and surrendering short passes underneath, that's fine. Better to try and bring down the guy in front of you than take a chance and end up chasing someone to the end zone. If Pittsburgh can keep Torrey Smith and Steve Smith in front of them on Saturday night, another test against Peyton Manning awaits.

''When we don't give up big chunk plays, we tend to win games,'' Blake said. ''If they're making those little catches in front of us, we just go up and make those tackles, that's not going to beat us.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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