PITTSBURGH — You may have seen the replay of last year's Packers-Steelers thriller that's playing on NFL Network these days.
If you haven't, these are the "miked up" highlights:
— A Packers assistant coach on the sideline: "They can't stop us!"
— Steelers coach Mike Tomlin after the game: "We hadn't stopped them."
Tomlin was explaining to reporters why, with 4:03 left and leading by two points, he called for an onside kick.
He knew his defense couldn't stop the Packers. He also knew that if the Packers recovered the kick, they'd score quickly and give Ben Roethlisberger enough time to pull out a miracle.
They did. And Roethlisberger did.
But if you saw the replay of last year's Packers-Steelers thriller, you also saw Tyrone Carter and Joe Burnett roaming the Steelers' secondary instead of Troy Polamalu and Bryant McFadden. And you saw a different William Gay — not the one who's since turned his game around.
"In the words of a great philosopher, Bartholomew Scott, neither one of us could stop a nosebleed," Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said of that game.
The Steelers believe they can stop a nose bleed this season because of their improved secondary.
Last season, the Steelers allowed an average of 215 passing yards per game and a passer rating of 83.4. And in the 11 games that Polamalu missed with a knee injury, the defense allowed 219 passing yards per game and a passer rating of 89.4.
This season, the pass defense has been better (214 passing yards per game; 73.1 passer rating), but particularly since Tom Brady and the Patriots gave them a wake-up call. In the last nine games, the Steelers have allowed only 163 passing yards per game and a 60.0 passer rating. And Polamalu missed two of those nine games.
In detailing the differences, Clark started with the transformation of Gay, who's become a strong No. 3 cornerback behind McFadden and Ike Taylor.
"I think the year William experienced last year – even though there was a lot of negativity surrounding it – was big for him," Clark said. "I think it changed his work ethic. Having a situation where they brought a guy back and basically gave him a position – it wasn't a position battle for cornerback – it's totally changed the way he's played the game, the way he's approached the game, and he's been a major, major part of us being better this year.
"Also having Bryant back for his leadership and knowledge of the game, now you have two guys over there that you're confident in that can make plays and run the defense correctly. It's a huge plus."
They'll all be needed against the Packers, whose receiving corps continues to run four deep: Greg Jennings (76 receptions, 16.6 yards per catch, 12 TDs), James Jones (50-13.6-5), Donald Driver (51-11.1-4) and Jordy Nelson (45-12.9-2) were their top four receivers last year, as well. Against the Steelers, they combined for 14 catches for 301 yards, with Jennings scoring from 83 yards and Jones from 24 to put the Packers ahead after the onside kick.
Rookie Andrew Quarless (21-11.3-1) replaced Jermichael Finley, who was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 5. Finley was dominant against Pittsburgh with nine catches for 74 yards and a touchdown.
Rodgers passed for 376 yards that day, the most the Steelers had allowed since 2007.
"I think last year's team was an anomaly, I really do," Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton said. "If you look at the defenses this year and in 2008, those are more representative of who we are.
Horton said Gay isn't the same player he was last season.
"He's just more focused," Horton said. "Ike is probably exactly the same, but I think the difference is he's looking for the ball sooner than he did last year. Last year he would look very late for the ball. Having B-Mac back is obviously a comfort and it allowed one more player to be our special teams player. A healthy Troy; Ryan is still steady. So, it's the same bunch of guys but probably more serious, more focused.
"Their pride was hurt a year ago by how we played. Statistically, we didn't play horrible, but we didn't play to our standards."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.