Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons couldn’t identify one thing that distinguishes his defense from others in the NFL.
“We have to be who we are, but we’ve got to be better down the stretch,” Timmons said. “One event or one game might not define us, but we’re in a situation now that one bad game could be costly.”
The defense, it seems, remains in search of an identity as the Steelers prepare to play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Heinz Field. Whether the defense is aggressive or tactically timid, any loss could cripple the team’s playoff aspirations.
A year ago, with the Steelers trying to keep their faint playoff hopes alive, the defense surrendered a combined 51 points in back-to-back games against Cincinnati and Green Bay. The offense bailed out the defense, scoring 68 points in those games en route to closing the season with a three-game winning streak.
This season, all eyes are on a defense that has lingered in the middle of the pack for much the season. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has worked overtime, in part, because of several injuries to several starters.
“It’s a 16-week season, and people are in and out of the lineup, and that’s why you need depth and flexibility,” LeBeau said. “I think our guys have done a good job going in there and doing that, but it’s not unusual that different people are playing than who started the season.
“I’ve said consistently that we have a young club and we’re working to get where we want to be. We’re sure not there yet, but I think we’re making progress.”
Timmons and defensive end Cam Heyward suggest adversity has prepared the defense to navigate a home stretch with a playoff berth at stake.
“It has helped a lot of people grow and put them in pressure situations,” Heyward said. “It has bolstered our depth. When you have more guys able to play, it helps the defense.
“We’re tackling better and trying to eliminate big plays. It hasn’t been perfect. We’re still a work in progress, partly because we’ve played a lot of guys.
“There are still things we haven’t capitalized on yet. It’s scary to think how good we can be when everyone’s healthy. We have everything in the world on this defense, but it’s a matter of putting it all together.”
The Steelers face New Orleans (4-7) today, then play Atlanta (4-7) — which is tied with the Saints atop the NFC South — in two weeks. They also play two pivotal games against Cincinnati (7-3-1) and face Kansas City (7-4) at home.
The Steelers, who trail AFC North leader Cincinnati by only a half-game, rank 13th in total defense (343.8 yards per game). However, the defense can’t be characterized solely by statistics.
LeBeau, with first-round picks Ryan Shazier (knee) and Jarvis Jones (wrist) hampered with injuries, stitched together a unit. Consider:
•Two aging veterans, linebacker James Harrison and defensive end Brett Keisel, have played better than imagined.
• Unheralded free agents such as cornerback Brice McCain and linebacker Arthur Moats unexpectedly were pressed into action.
• Struggling cornerback Cortez Allen was benched.
• And defensive linemen Steve McLendon, out against the Saints with a shoulder injury, and Cam Thomas seldom have carried their weight.
The defense received a boost last week when cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) and safety Troy Polamalu (knee) were cleared to return to full duty — just in time to face Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
“(Polamalu) makes all kinds of plays both in the run game and the pass game,” Brees said. “He’s as instinctive a player as you’ll ever see (and) one of the great safeties to ever play the game.”
Polamalu, who missed the past two games, and free safety Mike Mitchell must be at the top of their games against the Saints’ second-ranked offense (433.6 yards per game). Brees threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns on “Monday Night Football,” but Baltimore kept pace with a 34-27 victory.
The Steelers’ fifth-ranked offense (406.4 ypg) is capable of keeping up. Heyward, though, would rather an increasingly healthy defense dictate the outcome.
“Right now, we’re reloading,” Heyward said. “We have a lot of moving parts, mostly because of the injuries. So I’m excited to see what this defense is going to do from here on out.”
The Saints and Falcons are driven by the incentive of an NFC South title still there for the taking. And both are capable of putting up big point totals.
“The crazy thing is, the teams we’re playing are either first in their division or tied in their division,” Heyward said. “It gives us a chance to make a mark. I’m confident in our defense, and I’m ready to roll with what we’ve got.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].