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Confidence of Steelers defense is soaring after 3 consecutive victories

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Steelers defense stops Ravens running back Justin Forsett on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014 at Heinz Field.

Look at the point totals the Steelers were giving up during their Super Bowl-winning season in 2008: 10, 14, 6, 20, 10, 10 and 10.

Look at the point totals they’re allowing during their current three-game winning streak: 23, 34, 23.

What’s surprising is defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and cornerback Ike Taylor aren’t that displeased with how the Steelers defense is playing now as compared to how it was playing then.

“We’ve got young guys who have experience and are playing good,” said Taylor, the injured cornerback who is playing an active role on the sidelines while out. “We’ve got mid-range veteran guys playing good ball, deep veteran guys helping the young guys understand it. So it’s good for the team when you’ve got a lot of guys playing consistently.”

While the stats don’t look great — 1,173 yards given up in those three games — the Steelers (6-3) are confident in their defense going into their game Sunday against the New York Jets (1-8).

The points and yards allowed are predictable given the unrivaled efficiency of NFL passing-driven offenses. What’s different is the Steelers also are making game-changing plays — seven sacks, four interceptions, three fumble returns, a safety and multiple TDs set up by turnovers.

It’s exactly the kind of defense they weren’t playing, for example, when they led the NFL in defense in 2012 yet finished 8-8.

Partial credit for that transformation goes to 36-year-old James Harrison, who has four sacks in his past two games and nine QB hits in his past three as he returns to game shape.

“He never ceases to amaze me,” LeBeau said of Harrison, who ended a three-week retirement to return to the Steelers. “I knew he would be a positive contributor. He’s kind of driving the cart right now. It kind of feels like old times with the pass rush.”

“We’re trying to maintain that standard no matter who’s out there,” cornerback Willie Gay said.

And who’s out there is changing with almost every game. This week, safety Troy Polamalu, safety Shamarko Thomas and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier are injured and out. But the Steelers look to be better equipped to handle multiple-game injuries than they were the past two seasons.

During the offseason, the Steelers signed veteran safety Mike Mitchell, linebacker Arthur Moats, cornerback Brice McCain and defensive lineman Cam Thomas, all former starters in other cities. The depth they’ve provided keeps showing up; 18 players are averaging at least 10 defensive snaps a game.

The versatility depth allows LeBeau to shift Lawrence Timmons between both inside linebacker positions while subbing in Sean Spence or Vince Williams for Shazier. Thomas is playing nose tackle and defensive end. Gay has played cornerback and slot corner. Moats can play inside or outside. Mitchell can play free safety or strong safety. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds is flip-flopping sides.

Contrast that to the Jets, whose secondary is in such disarray because of injuries and poor performances that coach Rex Ryan is patch-working a lineup every week.

Three of the four Steelers secondary starters when the season began (Polamalu, Taylor, Cortez Allen) won’t be in the lineup Sunday. Each one is being replaced by a player with at least six seasons of experience.

“We have played better, without a doubt,” LeBeau said. “We played significantly better in that (Colts) game than the 34 points indicated. We had a couple of plays that hit us, and it resulted in points. But we don’t talk about what-ifs or excuses. All we know is we’ve got to get better, and I believe we are doing that.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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