Is defense best of modern Steelers era?

The Steelers are expected to smother yet another offense this weekend in Tampa -- unless king-sized QB Josh Freeman has other ideas. Here's a look at the matchup.

PITTSBURGH -- Casey Hampton wouldn't budge. None of the Steelers would.

Q: Is this the greatest defense you've ever played on?

A: It's only been two games. Go away.

Hampton didn't put it that way, but it summed up the veteran response to the Question of the Week after the Steelers' defense carried a headless horseman of an offense to a difficult road victory.

Much of the same is expected Sunday afternoon at Tampa Bay. The Bucs, like the Steelers, are 2-0, but against second-year quarterback Josh Freeman, and a running game that averaged 3.3 per carry against Cleveland and Carolina, the Steelers are expected to smother another opponent. And the historical comparisons will continue.

Of course, no defense will ever match the 9-game finish after Terry Bradshaw was planted by Turkey Jones. Those Steelers allowed only 28 total points throughout the final nine games of the 1976 season.

But how does this defense compare to the Steelers' recent championship defenses?

Hampton agreed this one might have better depth, and yet another explosive playmaker in Lawrence Timmons.

"But who'd we play?" Hampton asked. "Atlanta and Tennessee, two teams that are tailor-made for us. We'll stop the run and if they've only got one receiver it kind of makes it easy.

"Not to take anything away from what the defense has done, but I think against a more balanced team you'll be able to judge better."

That balance likely won't come from Tampa Bay, unless Freeman provides both the running and the passing.

Not that it's entirely out of the question. Freeman was drafted 17th overall last year and became the Bucs' starter in Week 9, when he threw 3 touchdown passes to beat Green Bay. But Tampa lost the next 5 games, 6 of the final 8, and Freeman finished with a passer rating of 59.8. He did have the highest completion percentage (54.5) of any rookie last season.

He's been much better this season. Through two games, Freeman's been intercepted only once and has a passer rating of 95.0. The 6-foot-6, 248-pounder credits Byron Leftwich with his development last season, but with 77 yards rushing on 6 carries Freeman instead conjures up the image of a young Ben Roethlisberger.

"He's a good athlete, a better athlete than I thought he was," James Farrior said after watching tape. "He can move around the pocket and extend the play a lot – a lot more than I thought he could do. We're going to have to show him a lot of different things, like we always do."

"He's big and shifty and can break away from arm tackles. He makes good decisions and he knows how to roll the pocket to avoid getting sacked and tackled," said Ziggy Hood, who chased Kansas State's Freeman without sacking him in three college meetings.

"I see a guy who's grown up a lot," Hood said. "He's surrounded by a good offensive line and he has all the tools and mechanics.

"If you want to compare by size, he could be another Ben Roethlisberger, with his size and escapability."

The potential irony isn't lost on a Steelers defense that needs a third consecutive All-World performance to compensate for an offense still without the suspended Roethlisberger. Charlie Batch will start this game for the Steelers.

"There are two studs this week," said Farrior. "The quarterback is a great athlete and Cadillac (Williams) is a great running back and he runs hard and he's a tough runner. Those are the two main guys we're going to focus on." Tight end Kellen Winslow and rookie wide receiver Mike Williams are other Tampa Bay weapons.

"Tampa keeps things really simple for the quarterback because he's still young," said former Buc and current Steeler Will Allen. "Their coaches do a great job getting them ready, but it's not like they'll do a lot to try to trick us."


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