Dee-fense. Dee-fense. Dee-fense.
What has been a favorite chant of Steelers fans for more than a generation of winning football seemed this year like it was going to turn out to be nothing but a plea. A new coordinator, and with him a changed philosophy, and with all of that a whole bunch of different players, who either were new to the NFL, new to the Steelers, or both. Then came the regular season opener in New England on Coronation Thursday when getting 11 players onto the field in time for the snap was looking to be an unreasonable expectation, and the need to score 30 points a game to compensate for this defense was looking like a conservative estimate.
After the first six games of this 2015 regular season, though, this Steelers defense is the best, most consistent unit on this team, and these Steelers are one of only nine teams in the NFL to wake up today with as many as four victories. They are 4-2 officially as the result of the 25-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Heinz Field, but an examination of those details will point to the continuation of a trend that grew roots in the third quarter of the season's third game.
On that occasion in the Edward Jones Dome against the St. Louis Rams, Ben Roethlisberger injured his knee, which now feels like when this defense took it upon itself to become the reason the Steelers are finding ways to win games while the franchise quarterback heals. What happened at Heinz Field yesterday is going to be remembered as Landry Jones' coming out party and as yet another showcase for Martavis Bryant's explosiveness, but if the defense hadn't been doing its thing throughout, those two individuals never would have been able to have the impact they had.
The Cardinals had decided to spend the week in West Virginia at The Greenbrier in between lighting the Detroit Lions on fire, 42-17, and their game against the Steelers so as to keep their bodies acclimated to the Eastern time zone. When they arrived here, the Cardinals were leading the NFL in passing yards, in rushing yards per carry at 5.0; they were second in red zone efficiency with 17 touchdowns in 22 trips for a 77.3 percentage, and they led the NFL in points per game with an average of 38.0.
The Arizona offense, with Bruce Arians calling the plays, landed Sunday's first punch with a 32-yard pass from Carson Palmer to John Brown on the first snap. A Palmer fumble on what was going to be an attempted running play ultimately sabotaged that possession, but on the next Arians and Palmer combined to cover 47 yards in six plays ending with a third-and-goal touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead.
But the Steelers defense just kept playing. A takeaway came on a Vince Williams deflection toward Lawrence Timmons who made a sweet athletic play to cradle the ball before it hit the turf. The next Cardinals possession was nine plays and a punt, then five plays and a missed 47-yard field goal, then 13 plays and having to settle for a field goal on a fourth-and-9 from the 13-yard line. It was 10-3 at halftime against an opponent owning the best offense in football, and the Steelers were that close despite their own offense gaining 59 total net yards on 22 plays in support of the cause.
Against the Cardinals, the Steelers defense shut down the run to the tune of 55 yards on a 2.8 average. Yes, they allowed a bunch of passing yards to Palmer and some gaudy individual statistics to John Brown and Larry Fitzgerald, but they sacked Palmer once, hit him seven times, and drew three penalties on the Cardinals offensive line. They also broke up eight passes, intercepted two, and created takeaway No. 3 when James Harrison physically separated the ball from Brown and Mike Mitchell dug it out of the pile.
There's nothing especially dominant about this Steelers defense, but it continues to find ways to be effective, and in a results-only business that's all that really matters. In their five games after New England, the Steelers defense has 17 sacks, 29 pressures, nine takeaways, and 22 passes defensed. And most importantly, only seven touchdowns allowed in five games, with one of those coming in garbage time of a 43-18 win over the 49ers.
If you're looking for names, there are many who have their hands in the pile – Harrison, Will Gay, Will Allen, and Lawrence Timmons, to Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and Mike Mitchell. Sean Spence has been filling in nicely during Ryan Shazier's absence, and then Vince Williams pops up and gets a hand on a ball that turns into a takeaway against the Cardinals. Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats have chipped in 4.5 sacks and six pressures from the left outside linebacker spot. Antwon Blake has five passes defensed as one outside cornerback. Ross Cockrell has two takeaways from the other.
This defense is making plays, in a variety of ways at many different critical moments, and the Steelers are finding ways to win games. It's six games into this regular season, and the Steelers are winning with a defense carrying the team early, kind of the way the offense was supposed to.
Get well soon, Ben. The defense is doing its part.