Labriola on playoff potential

Defense wins championships.

Sounds almost quaint, doesn't it? What we have come to believe, to accept as a football commandment, just seems to be out of touch with the modern realities. Today, the NFL is a place where a 60 percent completion percentage is the minimum standard, where 4,000 yards passing is not at all rare among the best quarterbacks. Highly-accurate passers, receivers who are athletic freaks, rules that protect both of those occupations. Mix it up and what you have is a sport where it's not so much about stopping offenses as it is about slowing them down.

Even so, defense wins championships.

Defense still wins championships, and it's going to win Super Bowl XLVI for somebody. That doesn't mean somebody is getting shut out, or even necessarily handled. Defenses have had to evolve as a result of the league's new climate, but it still seems to be that in the biggest games the team with the better defense wins. It's just that defense now is more dramatic than dominant.

Maybe it's one big play that directly impacts the scoreboard. Or a takeaway. It can be a timely stop. Or maybe something as seemingly minor as forcing a field goal attempt. And for all the high-powered offenses throughout the NFL of late, defenses have been the difference in the awarding of the Lombardi for the past several seasons.

For all of the yards Aaron Rodgers accumulated, it was the pick-six by Nick Collins that was the real difference in Super Bowl XLV. Tracy Porter's pick-six clinched it for the Saints the previous year. James Harrison going 100 yards on the last play of the first half against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. The Giants front four knocking the perfect out of the Patriots in XLII.

One of the defenses in these 2011 NFL Playoffs is going to author a similar moment, and it should come as no surprise when it affects the trophy presentation. The Steelers enter this postseason with a defense capable of that.

It might not seem like that, not after a regular season in which their sack total was down, and their takeaway number was so far down as to be as low as any in the history of the franchise, or at least the eras in which keeping such statistics was done.

But the 2011 Steelers defense, for all that it didn't do, did a lot of praiseworthy things. It finished first in the NFL in yards per game, yards per play, passing yards per game, passing yards per play, first downs per game and points allowed.

By any definition, a defense that doesn't give up many yards or many points is a great defense. And if the unit finally can pair something resembling healthy versions of LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, maybe the pressure on the passer increases, which increases the likelihood of forcing opposing quarterbacks into quick and potentially bad decisions, which increases the potential for takeaways, this Steelers defense could become a unit that is both stingy and larcenous.

As the Steelers take to the road for these playoffs, they do so with a talented and battle-tested team, a team with a nice complement of dynamic playmakers, and all of it means they are a team in possession of many of the components necessary to defend their conference championship and earn a trip to Indianapolis.

And should it happen, don't be surprised if it's because of their defense.

Read the rest of this column in its entirety in the current issue of Steelers Digest. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005, or visit: http://www.steelers.com/news/digest.html

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