Despite age and injuries, Pittsburgh defense still going strong

November 15, 2012 | Luke Jones

Despite age and injuries, Pittsburgh defense still going strong

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — They’ve heard the same criticisms offered in Baltimore about a vaunted Ravens defense that’s taken a plunge to 27th overall in 2012, but the Pittsburgh defense continues to strike fear into opponents.

Ranked first in the league in yards allowed and seventh in scoring defense, the Steelers currently have seven starters over the age of 30 on the defensive side of the football. Seven-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu has played in two games all season and doesn’t appear likely to suit up on Sunday night.

But the Ravens are fully aware of the challenge facing them as they try to win their third straight regular-season game at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is out, but the Baltimore offense knows he has nothing to do with a defense that continues to excel despite a few more gray hairs and nagging injuries.

“They are a physical bunch. They haven’t changed a lot on defense, even with their stars out [like] Polamalu,” running back Ray Rice said. “They are still coming after you. They are going to hit you hard.”

The Steelers’ 16 sacks are an underwhelming total — tied for 22nd in the league with the Ravens — but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau still brings pressure that will give quarterbacks fits.

Because of the various blitz packages the Steelers tend to dial up, it will be interesting to see if the Ravens try to use their no-huddle offense to keep Pittsburgh in its base 3-4 defense as much as possible. Of course, Baltimore has struggled to score points on the road, averaging only 17.5 points per game.

Outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have combined for only four sacks this season, but the Ravens aren’t taking the duo lightly as they’ve wreaked havoc on quarterback Joe Flacco in the past.

“They’ve done what they always do. They pressure you, first of all,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They’ve got very good pass rushers. They do a good job of trying to get their guys in one-on-one situations. Their pressure package is predicated on creating the matchups they want in the pass rush. And then they’ve got play-makers who catch and run and make plays.”

In recent seasons, Pittsburgh has been vulnerable in the secondary, but cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis have played at a high level this season as the Steelers have held opponents to just 171.1 passing yards per game. Making the feat even more impressive has been the secondary’s ability to limit passers such as Eli Manning despite the long-term absence of Polamalu.

The Ravens will likely use a similar approach to the one used in Cleveland two weeks ago as they used more balance in committing to the running game. The Steelers rank sixth in the league against the run, but Kansas City was surprisingly successful with the ground game in Week 10, rushing for 142 yards on 35 carries.

“We have to take what they are going to give us, but I think running the ball is something that we have to do well against them,” Rice said. “I’ve always said it: You don’t pick up and say, ‘We are going to run the ball at the Pittsburgh Steelers.’ They take a lot of pride in that. We’ll be smart when we run it, but we will try to execute at a high level and get some great runs.”

Ultimately, the Ravens’ chances of winning will come down to the play of quarterback Joe Flacco, who has orchestrated last-second drives to win the last two regular-season meetings in Pittsburgh. The fifth-year quarterback is more than familiar with the surroundings at Heinz Field as a former Pittsburgh Panther — before transferring to Delaware — and now has six road games (two in the postseason) under his belt against the Steelers.

Flacco wouldn’t characterize Pittsburgh’s stadium as a home away from home, but past experiences — good and bad — and recent triumphs have shaped him to be a more confident quarterback at Heinz Field. Last season, Flacco was 28-for-47 for 300 yards and threw a game-winning touchdown to Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining in a 23-20 final. A year earlier, the Baltimore signal-caller was 24-for-37 for 256 yards and tossed another last-minute 18-yard score to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds left in a 17-14 win.

“I don’t know if that adds to it, but I’m sure it probably does, somewhere inside of all of us,” Flacco said. “We’ve played there a good amount. We’ve really gone and played pretty well there, so we should be happy and confident when we take the field, and I think that we are. I’m sure that does add to a little bit to why we are confident there.”

Left guard remains in limbo

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5 Comments For This Post

  1. PghSteve Says:

    Despite all of the talk of the vaunted Ravens defense over the past several years, the fact is that since 2004 the Steelers’ defense has been #1 in total defense (yards allowed), #1 in rush defense, and #1 in scoring defense (this accorind to ESPN). What is the one thing that has not changed since 2004? The defensive coordinator. Mr. Lebeau is, IMO, the best DC in the business over the past 8 years.

    (L.J. – I wouldn’t exactly say the Baltimore defense has overshadowed Pittsburgh’s in the way you’re implying (both units have received plenty of media love), but I do agree about Dick LeBeau. One of great defensive minds in NFL history, no question.)

  2. unitastoberry Says:

    Unitas used to chew LeBeaus a** as a player in Detroit. He had some of his best games against them. Night Train Lane,Karas,and then Lem Barney where the stars on the Lions in the 60s not Dick. In fact he should not be in the HOF IMO.On the other hand Mike Curtis who was 3 times the player Dick was SHOULD BE!!!

  3. PghSteve Says:

    I am not sure how Mike Curtis figures into the discusion of Mr. Lebeau as a DC. However, Mr. Lebeau did have 62 interceptions (3rd all time when he retired, still tied for 8th, and 2 more than Mr. Reed has to date. He had 7 interceptions each against 2 HOF QBs, John Unitas and Bart Starr. He led the Lions in interceptions 4 times, played in 171 consecutive games, and was named to 3 Pro Bowls. Mr. Lebeau is one of only 12 players to return a fumble and an Int for a TD in the same game. Mr. Lane, who played 6 seasons with Mr. Lebeau, had 6 more interceptions than Mr. Lebeau. Sounds HOF worthy to me.

    Mr. Curtis had 25 interceptions and 22 sacks in his career. made 4 Pro Bowls, was named AFC DPOY in 1970, and played for 3 teams in his career. He was a fine player, perhaps HOF worthy, but certainly not 3 times the player Mr. Lebeau was.

    Unitas was the best QB to play the game. He chewed a lot of defensive backs’ rears. Don’t see why you feel the need to denigrate the career of a HOF cornerback because a linebacker on your team is not in the Hall of Fame.

    At any rate, not much argument that Mr. Lebeau is a better DC than Mr. Curtis.

  4. unitastoberry Says:

    @ PittstrollSteve I saw both of those guys play as a kid. LeBeau can’t hold Mike’s jock. Everyone in BALTIMORE knows Mikes not in the HOF because he was not fond of the players union and crossed the picket line when the first work stoppage occured during a pre-season in the late 60s.He was and is being BLACKLISTED. BTW Mike should have been MVP in Superbowl 5 not some scumbag from the losing team Dallas. Mike won a NFL championship in 68 and a Superbowl in 71.Bottom line is LeBeau was a loser as a player. The Lions are losers since Bobby Lane was there ok a few playoffs because of Barry Saunders. Mike was an OLB and MLB he had 25 interceptions many from the middle not the edge oh and Mike had more sacks than 22 because the league never kept statistics on sacks until 1982. His real ability was bone crushing hits and leadership on the defensive side of the ball. LeBeau was passed over on the intial ballot and had to wait until the veteran committee voted him in ironically at the same time he was winning Superbowls as a DC with the vaunted Stillers. I think if he was not in this position he would still be looking at Canton as a spectator. Now go back to Pittsburgh.

  5. PghSteve Says:

    @unitastoberry: Thanks for the rude comments directed at me. I can see how I deserved that for the many rude comments directed at you in my post above.

    I, too, saw both of these athletes play when I was in high school. Since I was living in Pittsburgh at the time and neither a Colts nor Lions fan, I don’t have vivid memories of either player. I do recall watching Mr. Curtis quite regularly when he played against the Steelers in the 70s. Quite a football player, indeed. HOF worthy, perhaps. I still do not see the connection between Mr. Lebeau being in the HOF and Mr. Curtis not being in. BTW, the sack total listed for Mr. Curtis are from records kept by the Colts and the Seahawks (Redskins do not have any records of Mr. Curtis having a sack for them.)

    Sad that you feel the need to disparage a fine football player and coach in order to put forth your opinion that Mr. Curtis should be in the HOF, instead of “looking on as a spectator.”

    And I think I will be staying in Baltimore for a while, as this is where I raised my children and hope to soon spoil my grandchildren.

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