Steelers defense starting to jell
Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis didn’t become a maniac overnight, forcing his players by the sheer force of his will — and the tenor of his voice — to start making plays.
He didn’t become smarter or more clairvoyant in the past few weeks, being able to guess with increasing frequency what the opposing offense will run.
No, the improvement in the Steelers defense — from 20th in the league Nov. 26 to third today — is actually a simple matter.
“The bottom line is we’re playing better,” he said, “and we haven’t played Tom Brady and Rich Gannon in a long time.”
In the past two games, the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans totaled 178 yards running and passing, a mere 44 percent of the 403 yards that Gannon, the Oakland Raiders quarterback, amassed merely by flinging his arm 64 times on Sept. 15.
Overall, the Steelers are giving up an average of 295.4 yards per game, only 37 more than last year when they led the league in that category. Also, the run defense is No. 1, threatening to successfully defend its title, with an average of 84.8 rushing yards allowed.
With two games left in the regular season and the Steelers still needing one more victory to clinch a playoff berth, Lewis all but yawns at the stinginess of his defense.
“The numbers are just what they are — they are numbers,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we haven’t clinched anything, we haven’t won the world championship yet. They’ve steadily grown, but it has to do with opponent, it has to do with what they’ve shown you, it has to do with how you’ve played, of course, it has to do with the calls, it has to do with motivating.”
Maybe it is more closely tied to two more numbers — 31 and 32. Those are the respective offensive rankings of the Panthers and Texans, who are last and next-to-last in average yards per game in the NFL.
If the Steelers’ better defensive performances are just a matter of the ineptness of the most recent opponents, it nonetheless may give the team a confidence boost at the most crucial point in the season. Inside linebacker Kendrell Bell, who didn’t have a sack until December, has four in three games. Outside linebacke Jason Gildon, who was all but invinsible for 12 games, has 4 1 / 2 sacks in the past two games and is tied with Joey Porter for the team lead with eight.
That kind of pressure on Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson would give the Steelers more than a fighting chance in their showdown in Tampa, Fla., on Monday night. Remember, the Steelers sacked Johnson 10 times last year in a 17-10 victory.
Whatever the reason, such a surge of defensive brilliance can’t hurt.
“It’s that time of year,” Lewis said. “The cream always rises to the top. They’ve been challenged.
“They are tackling better, getting to their assignments quicker.”
Lewis said the Steelers are better equipped to handle the dreaded spread offensive sets used by Brady and the New England Patriots in the regular-season opener and the Raiders the following week. Each quarterback caught the Steelers by surprise with his passing frequency and efficiency, and each completed more than two-thirds of his pass attempts in recording 30-14 and 30-17 victories.
Gannon’s 403 yardage total has turned out to be the seventh-best statistical effort by a quarterback in the NFL this season. It also was his first of 10 games of 300 yards or more, an NFL record.
“You watch Rich Gannon throw for over 300 yards in 10 games this year and set an NFL record and it’s not far-fetched to think he could do it against us, if it were that we weren’t expecting it,” Lewis said. “The fact of the matter is he did it vs. teams that even knew it was coming and had a lot of time to prepare for it.
“In a way, I thank him. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because we had an opportunity to get exposed to it.”
Lewis said almost every opponent has gone against their previous tendencies when the Steelers confronted them on game day.
“The only thing we haven’t been exposed to is the wishbone (offense) and if someone were to jump into the wishbone, that might throw us for a loop for a moment, too, and then we’ll get accustomed to it and play it better, too,” Lewis said.
“The fact of the matter is people forced us to do different things early in the year. Now that we’ve seen those things, we are better able to handle them. We are more apt to make the right decision at the right time.”
If proven true, Lewis’ observation is important because the Steelers could play the Patriots and/or Raiders in the playoffs.
Lewis said the Steelers, who are tied for fifth in the NFL with 41 sacks, are blitzing less than they were earlier in the season. The difference is that the blitzes are working more often.
Plus, Lewis’ speeches to his players in the team hotel the night before games appear to be getting through to their intended targets. He said he concludes every meeting by telling his players to “attack, attack, attack.”
It’s just a motivational ploy — not especially clever — but the players seem to be responding to it, and Porter repeated those three words to reporters Sunday.
“If I say something emphatically or raise an eyebrow or draw it up in a certain color pen and it sticks with them, then so be it,” Lewis said. “Whatever it takes to motivate them.”
He also isn’t afraid to chew them out, something that he said has happened at “several points” this season.
“You just have to make sure you don’t do it too often, because sometimes it goes in one ear and out the other.”
What Lewis is saying and shouting is starting to make an impression, and that might be just another reason for the sudden improvement in the Steelers defense.
Here is a look at the steady improvement in the Steelers’ defensive ranking in the NFL over the past five weeks (not including Monday night’s game):
Week: Total defense-Run defense-Pass defense