Eyes on the prize

The progress the Steelers have made on defense throughout what has become a five-game winning streak has been evident on the scoreboard and on the stat sheet.

In last Thursday night's 52-21 blasting of the Carolina Panthers, it was even evident pre-snap.

On first-and-10 from the Panthers 12-yard line with 10:29 left in the first quarter, quarterback Cam Newton saw outside linebacker T.J. Watt coming and couldn't do anything about it.

Carolina ran a play-action bootleg.

The majority of the Steelers' defense went after running back Christian McCaffrey.

Watt went straight for Newton.

Newton managed to stay upright, but Watt did enough to induce a desperation throw from the end zone.

Inside linebacker Vince Williams intercepted it and returned the ball 17 yards for a touchdown.

"Before the play we made eye contact," Watt explained. "I was trying to figure out why he was looking at me because I was so wide.

"I was blitzing up the field. The eye contact that he made, I don't ever get that from quarterbacks so I knew something was up. So I just went right for him instead of going for the run fake. Didn't get him down, but got him to throw the pick-six, so that was awesome."

It was a 180-degree turnaround from what had occurred on Carolina's first possession, a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that had included a 21-yard run, a fourth-down conversion and a 20-yard touchdown pass from Newton to McCaffrey.

"The first series we were adjusting," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "After that we settled in."

The same could be said for what's taken place on defense since the first month of the season.

In September, the Steelers' defense failed to hold a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead in Cleveland, got scorched for 42 points by Kansas City and got pushed around by Baltimore to the tune of 35:03 of possession time in a 26-14 loss to the Ravens (21:31 in the second half).

Even in a 30-27 win on Sept. 24, the defense allowed 17 second-half points (14 in the fourth quarter).

But the only obvious stain on the defensive resume since the calendar turned to October was the nine-play, 75-yard drive that allowed the Bengals to take a 21-20 lead with 1:18 remaining on Oct. 14 in Cincinnati.

"I don't think it's a come-to-Jesus moment where something miraculously just happened," Heyward said. "Everybody is buying in and everybody is doing their job. Everybody got back to work, it showed on the practice field and we've been doing it ever since.

"We have to continue to do it."

The Steelers have made adjustments and tweaks along the way.

Coty Sensabaugh has taken over at right cornerback for Artie Burns. L.J. Fort has been the lone inside linebacker in the six-defensive backs sub-package rather than Williams ever since the Steelers' 33-18 win in the rematch against Cleveland on Oct. 28. And veteran safety Morgan Burnett played more defensive snaps than rookie No. 1 pick Terrell Edmunds against the Panthers for the first time since the Steelers' loss to the Chiefs on Sept. 16 and for the second time this season.

Burnett didn't play any snaps for four consecutive games, from the game at Tampa through the game in Cincinnati, due to injury.

"Everybody's healthy and everybody's confident," nickel cornerback Mike Hilton said. "That first quarter of the season was rough for us defensively but we buckled down. We're making plays on the ball. We're tackling a lot better.

"We're starting to become a better defense."

One that's confident enough to effectively play its base package against three-wide receivers sets, as the Steelers uncharacteristically did repeatedly in the Carolina game.

"We just want to keep building on what we've been doing," Watt said. "We knew what we were capable of this while time. We just want to keep putting good performance on top of good performance.

"We're having a blast. We're having a great time out here. We're all playing together as a unit, we're flying around and we're having a great time doing it."

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