The strip-sack by outside linebacker T.J. Watt and the fumble recovery by inside linebacker L.J. Fort in the end zone late in the fourth quarter provided the exclamation point.
The Steelers’ defense had already earned a celebration.
“Hopefully, this performance can catapult us in the right direction and start climbing the leaderboard of defenses, continue to win and make plays for this team,” Fort said.
Plays made by the defense in the Steelers’ 41-17 blasting of Atlanta on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field included:
—Limiting the Falcons to 324 total net yards, including 62 on 19 rushing attempts (a 3.3 average per carry).
—Six sacks and 11 quarterback hits on Matt Ryan.
—Keeping the Falcons under 50 percent on third-down conversions (6-for-14, 43 percent).
—The defensive TD with 3:35 remaining in regulation.
For a defense that came in ranked No. 21 against the run, No. 29 against the pass and No. 30 in total defense through the season’s first four weeks, the effort was as timely as it was complete.
Atlanta came in ranked No. 7 in the NFL in total offense, No. 6 in passing offense and had accounted for 902 total net yards and 73 points over its last two games.
“This is us, man,” nickel cornerback Mike Hilton said. “This was a big turning point for us.
“I know a lot of people were probably expecting a shootout. For us to come out and dominate the way we did defensively, that’s a big step for us.”
Among the significant components of what the defense was able to accomplish collectively were:
WINNING UP FRONT: Defensive coordinator Keith Butler had said last Thursday he liked the Steelers’ chances of generating pressure with a four-man rush based on what he perceived to be favorable match-ups against Atlanta.
For the most part, the Steelers exploited those match-ups.
“I think so,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I thought the defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage.”
SHADOWING JULIO: Cornerback Joe Haden followed wide receiver Julio Jones the vast majority of the time when Jones wasn’t lined up in the slot.
Jones, the NFL’s leader with 502 receiving yards coming in, was shut out in the first half and finished with five catches for 62 yards, with a long reception of 18 yards, on nine targets.
“Just trying to get my hands on him, just trying to disrupt him,” Haden explained of the press-coverage he often employed against Jones. “They do a lot of timing (routes). The D-line did such a great job of just getting them off their rhythm and off timing.
“If I disrupt that and try to throw it off, the rush and coverage work together.”
MANAGING MOVING PARTS: Hilton was back after having missed the Sept. 30 game against Baltimore.
Defensive back Cam Sutton once again played in the six-defensive backs sub-package with safety Morgan Burnett unavailable for the third straight game.
And inactive inside linebacker Vince Williams (hamstring) was replaced by Tyler Matakevich in the base defense and by Fort when six defensive backs were deployed.
“We did a good job getting people in and out,” free safety Sean Davis said. “No 12-men-on-the-field penalties this game, so we did a good job communicating, a better job communicating.”
Added Haden: “We emphasized communication, who’s coming in, who’s coming out, personnel, checks, calls, and everything, so everybody was echoing. ‘S.D.’ (Davis), (strong safety) Terrell (Edmunds), everybody on the back end was helping all the linebackers. We were just echoing calls and everybody was on the same page.
“There were no busts (broken coverages).”
RISING TO THE OCCASION: The defense recognized it was time to make a statement and responded accordingly.
“We needed to put a stake in the ground and just work,” Davis said. “We’ve been down. We’ve been down bad. We knew we had to put a stake in the ground and fight up hill.”
It might have started coming together in the days leading up to Sunday.
“We had a good week of practice,” Heyward said. “I know every week’s different but I thought the level of detail really picked up (last) week.”
Better late than never.
“We know what we have but at the end of the day you have to put it on tape,” Haden said. “You have to put it on film. Sundays are the days we can show what we’ve been working on all week.
“This was a step in the right direction. I think we’re really excited. We just want to build on it and continue to play like this.”