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Steelers defense continues to evolve with injury to safety Polamalu

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Steelers' Arthur Moats celebrates his second-quarter sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014, at Heinz Field.

The Steelers defense looks nothing like it did at the start of the season, either in performance or personnel.

It will look even different Sunday when the Steelers (6-3) try to avoid losing to the Jets (1-8), whose only victory came against the winless Raiders.

Safety Troy Polamalu (sprained knee) and inside linebacker Ryan Shazier (sprained ankle) are out, further altering a defensive lineup that will have five different starters than it did in the Sept. 7 opener against Cleveland.

It’s a defense that’s gotten older — thanks to James Harrison and Brett Keisel — in a season in which it was supposed to get younger. It’s a defense that’s now without both former starting cornerbacks and three former first-round picks in Polamalu, Shazier and Jarvis Jones.

But even after allowing 80 points, seven touchdown passes and 915 yards passing — the second-most in the NFL — during the past three games, it also can be argued this is a Steelers defense that’s getting better. Much of that yardage was generated after the Colts and Ravens fell behind by three touchdowns.

“The reality is we’ve been up and up significantly the last two ballgames,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.

There are multiple reasons why, yet the Steelers probably haven’t been this encouraged following any comparable stretch in which the defense gave up so many yards and so many points.

“I don’t think we’ve turned the corner,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I don’t think there was a corner to turn. (We’ve) just stayed straight, dealt with the ups and downs and stayed focused and welcomed every opponent.”

No doubt they’re not saying it after losing to the Buccaneers, Raiders and Vikings the past two seasons, but the Steelers probably are welcoming this upcoming pre-bye stretch against the Jets (1-8) and Titans (2-6).

It seems likely they’ll play both games without Polamalu and Shazier, though Tomlin said they’ll be reassessed next week.

With Polamalu out, free safety Mike Mitchell could play closer to the line of scrimmage in an effort to generate plays, with Will Allen playing deep at times.

Shazier’s latest absence — this will be the fifth full game he’s missed — means more playing time for Sean Spence and Vince Williams, who have been sharing the position.

So what’s changed about this defense whose numbers would seem more worrisome than encouraging?

• The ball is changing hands. The Steelers have seven takeaways, including four interceptions, in the past three games, and turning the ball over produced game-changing scoring bursts in every game. They had only six takeaways in the first six games.

• The point-the-way leadership void is being filled with the return of 36-year-olds Keisel and Harrison.

“They’re special guys, and that’s why we were willing to do business with them again,” Tomlin said.

• Harrison and Jason Worilds are generating the kind of pressure that once personified the Steelers defense, yet was missing for most of the first half of the season.

Harrison has played only 189 snaps, about one-third of all those by the defense, since ending his three-week retirement, yet he has four sacks, nine quarterback hits and four quarterback hurries. Worilds has 11 QB hits and 16 hurries.

“I’m not surprised,” Tomlin said about Harrison. “I’ve come to expect unique results from unique people. … He’s really charged by that (defying the odds) and rejuvenated by those challenges.”

• William Gay, the best-performing pass defender over the past two seasons and now a starter, and former backup Brice McCain are settling down the cornerback position. Ike Taylor (broken right forearm) also could return as early as Sunday.

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

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