By BOB LABRIOLA
Really, the problem started back in the early 1970s when a Bengals assistant coach named Bill Walsh started trying to figure out a way to neutralize what was the NFL's most feared defensive line, because that team happened to be in the same AFC Central Division.
By 1974, the Steelers defensive line – soon to be dubbed The Steel Curtain – rolled up 52 sacks in a 14-game season on the way to winning the Super Bowl, and football as it was played in the NFL was about to change forever.
"There was more vertical passing in football in those times, and less West Coast-style dink-and-dunk passing," said Coach Mike Tomlin, who spent time during the offseason studying those Steelers teams. "The four-man rush was more devastating. In today's NFL, you can neutralize a quality four-man rush with rhythm passing. Some of the things those guys faced in terms of quarterbacks taking seven-step drops had guys like L.C. Greenwood licking their chops. It was a beautiful thing to watch."
The defense's goal always has been to get to the quarterback, while the offense understands its only way to get anything accomplished is to protect the passer. That battle has raged for decades, and it continues in every NFL city to this day.
It's rare that good defense can be played on the professional level without a quality pass rush, and the Steelers have been playing quality defense on a consistent basis since Chuck Noll was hired in 1969. It was The Steel Curtain throughout the 1970s and it would come to be known as Blitzburgh in the 1990s, but whatever it was called it usually ended with the opposing quarterback on the ground.
The Steelers set a franchise record with 55 sacks in 1994 and they tied it in 2001. During the 2008 season that ended with their sixth Super Bowl championship, the Steelers recorded 51 sacks to lead the league in that category.
With that kind of history, by setting such a precedent, it's somewhat eye-opening to see the Steelers defense with just two sacks after two games of the 2009 season.
James Harrison, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the current holder of the franchise's individual single-season sack record with 16, has none. LaMarr Woodley, who had 11.5 during the regular season and set an NFL record by averaging two sacks a game through last year's playoffs, has none. In fact, besides Aaron Smith and James Farrior, everybody on the defense has none.
"I don't necessarily think it is indicative of the type of rush we have been getting," said Tomlin about the team's sack total. "We never use sacks to measure the quality of our rush. We want pressure applied to the quarterback. Ultimately, it is how the quarterback plays. Obviously we didn't do a good enough job last week because Jay Cutler was effective. We need to do better."
Doing better could be interpreted as Tomlin's way of trying to light a fire under the guys who are charged with rushing the passer, but the reality of offensive football is that getting to the quarterback often involves doing a better job of covering the receivers.
In last Sunday's game in Chicago, the Bears obviously were interested in protecting Cutler, not only from being sacked but also from being pressured into making the kinds of decisions that had led to four interceptions the previous weekend in Green Bay.
To that end, Cutler completed one pass of 29 yards to Greg Olsen and one pass of 22 yards to Johnny Knox. None of his other 25 completions were for more than 20 yards.
"We have to play good short defense, underneath defense," said Tomlin. "That rhythm, quick passing at times is a run game alternative. I thought we did a nice job of shutting down their running game, and really, what it became was a running game alternative.
"You get them to throw an incomplete pass, you get them behind the chains, you get off on third down, and you go about your business. They did a nice job of completing those short passes, and even when they didn't, they did a nice job at significant times of the game of converting those third down situations and moving the chains, and scoring a touchdown near the end of the second half and then also putting themselves in the position to kick the game winning field goal."