In one way, what they did could be seen as a failure. But in another, more important way, what they did offered real promise for the future.
The regular season finale at Heinz Field against the Cleveland Browns – a 24-10 victory for the Steelers – was a meaningless game for them in terms of their playoff aspirations, but the players on defense saw it as an opportunity to make a little bit of history.
Not since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles had a defense finished a season with the triple crown, that being No. 1 rankings in rush defense, pass defense and total defense, and the Steelers had a legitimate shot at pulling it off.
They entered the game against the Browns – and their No. 3 quarterback Thad Lewis – with a significant edge over the San Francisco 49ers to finish No. 1 in total defense, and with a 30-yard edge over the New York Jets to finish No. 1 in pass defense. Where things seemed dicey was in the category of rush defense, where the Steelers were 57 yards behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who would be facing an Atlanta team that already had clinched homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
In the end, the Steelers were unable to overcome their deficit to the Buccaneers, and so there would be no 1-1-1 triple. The 1991 Eagles' place in the record book was safe for at least another year.
Yes, the NFL ranks its defenses by yardage allowed, but there is more that goes into a great unit than simple stinginess. It was in that area of "more" where the 2012 Steelers defense was lacking through most of the regular season, but the unit delivered the "more" in each of the last two games.
For an NFL defense, the "more" comes in the form of takeaways and big plays, with big plays being sacks and others made behind the line of scrimmage. That's where the Steelers defense showed development, improvement, quite possibly the kind of promise that can reverse the backsliding the unit has experienced in the "more" categories since the 2010 season when it won the AFC Championship.
Over the final two weekends of this regular season, the Steelers defense was its typically stingy self. It allowed only one touchdown on the way to 13 total points, and 587 total net yards of offense. But during this fortnight, there also was "more."
In the penultimate game of this regular season – a 13-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals – the Steelers sacked Andy Dalton six times, had six other tackles for loss, and recorded a season-high three takeaways. In the final against the Browns, it was four sacks, four other tackles for loss, and a new season-high of four takeaways.
During a season in which it finished with 20 takeaways, the Steelers defense had seven of those in the final two weeks. During a season in which the Steelers defense finished with 37 sacks, it had 10 of those in the final two weeks.
The Steelers defense failed in its quest to finish the 2012 season 1-1-1, but what it was able to do in its final two games was "more" important than that.
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