It was more than the strength of the team, more than the reason they won. It was who they were. An identity. Their calling card. The foundation of the franchise even.
Not so this season. The 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers defense was a unit that couldn't stop the run, that gave up way too many big plays, that had trouble sacking the quarterback, that went three games before it recorded its first takeaway and four games before it intercepted its first pass. And even beyond the statistics, the 2014 Steelers defense was Exhibit A in making the case that this was a team in transition.
The franchise won Super Bowl XLIII – its record sixth Lombardi Trophy – with a defense that finished No. 1 in the NFL statistically, with a defense that set a physical tone only a few opponents attempted to match and none did successfully, with a defense responsible for a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in that Super Bowl they ultimately won by four points.
From that point began a slow but steady decline as their great players aged and then retired, and then it accelerated as the league office changed the way defense in the NFL could be played. The Steelers lost Super Bowl XLV at the end of the 2010 season, and over the course of the ensuing three years management came to accept it had to re-make the defense.
The reconstruction project isn't over and it's nowhere near complete, but on this season's 16th weekend it was the Steelers defense delivering the 10th victory that clinched a playoff spot and brought the AFC North Division title within reach next Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals visit Heinz Field for an 8:30 p.m. kickoff.
That's right. The defense. More than Ben Roethlisberger's passing, or Antonio Brown's playmaking, or Le'Veon Bell's all-purpose prowess, the 20-12 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs can be traced directly to James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons and Cam Heyward and Jason Worilds and those folks. No touchdowns allowed, six sacks recorded, a perfect 0-for-4 for a Chiefs offense that came into the game ranked No. 2 in the NFL in red zone efficiency.
And maybe even more telling than the statistics, the Steelers defense made the play that was the turning point in the game.
The situation had the Steelers holding a 10-6 lead with 27 seconds left in the first half. Kansas City had the ball on the Pittsburgh 12-yard line where it was facing a fourth-and-1, there were 27 seconds left, and the Chiefs were going to receive the second half kickoff. A score here, maybe add another to open the third quarter, and the Chiefs take control of the game because their own defense was keeping the Steelers offense bottled up. That had to be a factor in Andy Reid's decision to go for it rather than kick the field goal, and he also must have figured he had a good chance to make 1 yard vs. a defense that already had allowed 181 of them to that point in the first half.
Reid's gamble failed because the Steelers defense rose up and stoned one of the best running backs in the league. Timmons made the first contact with Jamaal Charles on the Kansas City side of the line of scrimmage, and to make sure there would be no squirming for yardage after initial contact, Harrison and Will Allen were right there to make sure there wasn't.
The play was the turning point in Sunday's victory, and it also could prove to be another kind of turning point now that the Steelers have assured themselves of a spot in the postseason tournament.
Don't look now, but the Steelers defense isn't what it was when the season opened. It's not even what it was on Dec. 1. There has been steady improvement in a number of individual players over the course of this season, and in the past couple of weeks that improvement has been showing up in the overall play of the group. Some young players are emerging and some others are asserting themselves. They're getting significant contributions from unexpected sources.
Today, the Steelers defense is no longer porous against the run, as evidenced by a premier running back like Jamaal Charles ending up with 29 yards on nine carries and finishing with 77 total yards from scrimmage. It seems to have committed itself to preventing big plays from crossing the goal line, and there haven't been any of those in a couple of weeks. It's doing a better job of pressuring the quarterback, and it cashed in that pressure on Sunday with six sacks of Alex Smith. And during this current three-game winning streak, it has allowed only five touchdowns.
"I could say (this is the best defensive effort of the season) because as we sit here right now those are the feelings," said Coach Mike Tomlin, "but we're just trying to do what's required for us to win. It was very necessary today. We'll appreciate it today. I'm sure we have some bigger, tougher challenges and battles that lie ahead. That needs to be our focus as opposed to looking back and admiring our work."
Almost simultaneously, in the visitor's locker room Jamaal Charles was asked about that failed fourth-and-1. "The Steelers defense wanted it more than us," said Charles.
This 2014 Steelers defense isn't the Steelers Curtain. It isn't Blitzburgh. But it is better today than it was yesterday, and that's been true for the last several weeks. And as a result, the Steelers can look forward to the real possibility of a lot more tomorrows.