By BOB LABRIOLA
Coach Mike Tomlin agrees. He agrees with the bloggers, the tweeters, the people in the chat rooms and those who call into talk radio shows. He wants the defense to be more dominant, too.
"(I assess the defense's performance as) 3-2, just like I assess my performance thus far," said Tomlin. "Ultimately, that's all that matters. At times, I know they'd like to be more dominant. I'd like them to be more dominant, but we don't always get what we want in the National Football League."
One season ago, the Steelers had the most dominant defense in the land, a unit that tied a 35-year-old NFL record by holding 14 consecutive opponents under 300 yards of total offense, a unit that had 51 sacks and 29 takeaways, that scored three touchdowns and a safety, that was 54 yards rushing away from finishing No. 1 in the NFL in the four big categories – rushing defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense.
Add to those statistics the typical exaggeration of accomplishments with the passage of time, and the perception of the 2008 Steelers defense is of a unit that never allowed even a first down.
This season, there has been some dominance, but only in short spurts within games, and that has been buried beneath an avalanche of criticism accompanying the blown fourth quarter leads in the two losses so far – in Chicago and in Cincinnati. Add to those losses a couple of near misses in the wins over the Chargers and last Sunday in Detroit, and the perception of this Steelers defense is of a unit that cannot stop anybody.
After five games, the Steelers defense ranks second, 11th, tied for fourth and tied for 14th in the four big categories, but it's fair to point out that 21 of the 98 points scored by their opponents have come from returns – two interceptions and a fumble. The defense has 15 sacks, which is on pace for 48; four takeaways, which is on pace for 13; and it has scored no points.
The belief is that the Steelers have dialed back their blitzes because of the impact of Troy Polamalu's injury on both the pass rush itself and the coverage behind the rush, but Tomlin refuses to acknowledge that.
"We haven't changed our personality," said Tomlin. "We want to apply pressure to the quarterback. If you can do it with four, great. If you need more than four, then we're willing to do that. I think consistent pressure on the quarterback is the key to playing good defense."
The Steelers saw Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper – playing without wide receiver Calvin Johnson – pass for 282 yards and convert 61 percent on third down (73 percent in the second half) and get to the Pittsburgh 21-yard line at the two-minute warning needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the game.
But it was on the three plays immediately after the Lions reached the Steelers 21-yard line where the defense rose up to record three successive sacks, and if those plays served to ice the outcome of the team's third win of the season, they also brought the "why not blitz more often" opinion to the forefront.
"We follow a similar formula every week," said Tomlin. "We want pressure on the quarterback. If four can provide it, then great, because that leaves more men for coverage. If we need to apply pressure with more than four, we're willing to do that as well."
They got Culpepper on the ground on those three plays, not because they outnumbered the Lions blockers but because the call created enough confusion within the Detroit protectors to allow at least one defensive player a clear path to the quarterback.
After the game, Tomlin attributed those sacks to executing in great detail, "and if you have great detail, splash plays happen."
His view of takeaways and how that are accumulated is similar.
"You'd like to think that (takeaways are) going to just come, and come in bunches," said Tomlin, "but usually, when you're not getting turnovers, it comes down to a few things. You need more detail quality work, and you need to play harder and faster. I think when you do those things, you're opportunistic. And that's what happens.
"Big plays happen when opportunity, technique, and energy meet. So we'll focus on the things that we can control. What we can't do is get overly concerned with the lack of turnovers and try to do too much. What we need to do is simply focus on the minute details and tasks that each call, that each defense entails, how each individual man fits in it, and do it with a great deal of passion, energy, and finish. I truly believe that the turnovers, in the end, will be there if we do those things."