Game Day Notebook

How the pass defense rose to the top; stopping Pro Bowl return man; Munchak heads Paterno tree; Dan Rooney on Al Davis.

PITTSBURGH – Back when the Steelers could stop the run – last year – Casey Hampton was asked to explain the monumental statistical jump his unit was making over the previous season in that department.

"No one's running the ball against us," Hampton explained. And in the end, Hampton proved right, and in a record-setting way. The Steelers set a franchise record for fewest rushing attempts by opponents: 333.

This season, the Steelers inexplicably can't stop the run. But they are No. 1 in the NFL in pass defense – and No. 2 isn't even close. The Steelers are allowing 157.5 yards passing per game, well ahead of the runner-up New York Jets at 180.3.

Last season, the Steelers finished 12th allowing 214.1 yards passing per game. Since no changes were made in the secondary, why the difference?

"Everybody's running the ball," said strong safety Troy Polamalu.

Of course.

But, he's right. Only three NFL defenses have seen fewer passes this season than the Steelers. They've defended 119 passes, putting them on pace to see 476 this season, or only 34 more than their franchise record for fewest in a 16-game season.

Isn't there another reason for the improvement?

"I think a big part of it can be attributed to what Ike [Taylor] has been able to do this year to No. 1 receivers," said free safety Ryan Clark. "If you look at the guy he's covering, it's usually the deep-ball guy, and stopping those guys from getting deep balls keeps the numbers down."

Clark also attributes some of the improvement to first-year secondary coach Carnell Lake.

"Coach Ray [Horton] was a real stickler for the things he wanted," Clark said. "Coach Lake's kind of allowed us a little more freedom. It's allowed Troy to free up some more to do some things, allowed us to almost – I don't want to say draw things up in the sand – but we've been able to utilize every part of the defense that's been offered to us this year. Coach Lake trusts the veterans and it's working well."

PRO BOWL RETURN MAN

Marc Mariani didn't just make the Pro Bowl last season as a seventh-round rookie return specialist out of the University of Montana, he set a Pro Bowl record with 326 yards in kickoff returns. He averaged 36.2 per nine returns in the game.

Mariani made the squad by finishing second in the AFC in punt-return average (12.2) and fourth in kickoff-return average (25.5).

A hip injury has bothered Mariani this season and his averages have slipped to 6.2 on punts and 24.0 on kickoffs.

The Steelers, meanwhile, are third in the NFL in punt coverage (3.8) and 14th in kickoff coverage (23.1).

COACH MUNCH

In his first season as coach of the Titans, Mike Munchak is the first Joe Paterno player to ascend to such a job in the NFL. Paterno started coaching at Penn State 62 years ago.

"Someone told me that a couple of weeks ago and it shocked me," said Munchak, who last played at Penn State in 1981.

Munchak, of course, spent 12 seasons as a guard with the Houston Oilers. He was selected to nine Pro Bowls and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. In the Titans' press release, he called the Steelers the greatest team he's ever competed against.

"Just being in the division and playing them twice a year," he explained. "The history. They are a tradition of what Pittsburgh has accomplished through the ‘70s with the Super Bowls and growing up in eastern Pennsylvania and obviously watching them quite a bit and playing for a team that had a chance to play them twice and coming to Pittsburgh once a year. So I thought those games to me were probably as good as any that I played in."

QUOTABLE

Steelers Chairman Emeritus Dan Rooney on the passing of Al Davis:

"Al Davis was a good man and we were friendly rivals. He was a football man and did a lot for the game of football. I had a lot of respect for him and he will be missed throughout the entire NFL."


Steel City Insider Top Stories