After one week they were No. 15 in the NFL in total defense and even though they had climbed to No. 5 by Week 6, Larry Foote admits to being nervous.
"I couldn't sleep," Foote acknowledged. "My mind was just saying 'Farrior, Farrior ... it's my fault.'
"Thank God the guys backed me up."
At least the story of Foote replacing James Farrior at inside linebacker on what had been the NFL's No. 1 defense in 2011 had a happy ending.
The Steelers entered their season finale with a 355-yard lead on the San Francisco 49ers for No. 1 in total defense, and then the unit went out and held the Cleveland Browns to 320 total net yards in a 24-10 victory on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
That made No. 1 overall a moot point before the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals kicked the ball off on the West Coast.
"It's awesome," Foote assessed. "We had an opportunity to (be ranked) 1-1-1 (in rushing, passing and total defense). I'm just proud on account of how we started off. We bounced back and climbed to No. 1 (in total defense)."
The Steelers entered the final regular season weekend ranked No. 1 in pass defense and No. 2 in rushing defense, as well as No. 1 in total defense. In addition to that edge they enjoyed over the 49ers, the Steelers also were 30 yards ahead of the New York Jets in passing yards allowed, but 57 yards behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in rushing yards allowed.
They stayed ahead of the Jets in passing defense by allowing the Browns to finish with 182 net yards passing while Buffalo put up 225 net passing yards in its win over the Jets. But the Steelers were unable to catch the Buccaneers for No. 1 against the rush after allowing the Browns to finish with 138 net yards rushing while the Falcons were gaining only 65 against Tampa Bay.
"It is what it is," safety Ryan Clark said of the final defensive rankings. "What matters is 8-8. Honestly, we talked about it coming into the game and we wanted to be No. 1 overall, so it's definitely not something I'm overlooking or something I'm not proud of.
"You just wish you could have made a couple of more plays so that the No. 1 defense was playing in the playoffs."
The lowest the Steelers have finished in total defense since Dick LeBeau took over for his second stint with the team as defensive coordinator in 2004 was ninth in 2006.
They were No. 1 previously in 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2011. Now, they are No. 1 overall for a fifth time. Also, the Steelers achieved Top 5-finishes in 2005 (fourth) and 2009 (fifth).
"That's one of the main things we came in trying to fight to do," linebacker James Harrison said. "That was a goal of ours coming into the (Cleveland) game."
Like Foote, defensive end Brett Keisel saw the Steelers' finishing No. 1 in total defense as a testament to how far the unit was able to come throughout the course of the season.
"We talked about that (last) week," Keisel said. "It would have been great to get it all around (rushing, passing, and total defense), but our defense played tough this year amid a lot of adversity and put us in positions to win games and that's all you can ask for.
"We' really came together and that's what it takes, everyone playing together, knowing their role, knowing their job. This is a physical game and you have to have a team that's ready to play. Our defense played tough through the second half of the season."