No. 1 Defense, With An Asterisk

The Steelers beat the Browns, 24-10, and finished the season first in defense. But as Mike Prisuta explains, without the domination, that defense could've used some help.

They took the field against Cleveland with a 355-yard lead on San Francisco for No. 1 in total defense, so even the trumped-up intrigue associated with the Steelers' otherwise meaningless regular-season finale lacked legitimacy.

The Browns countered with Thad Lewis at QB, which meant they were unlikely to gain enough yards to keep San Francisco mathematically in the hunt prior to the 49ers' 4:25 p.m. kickoff against Arizona.

To the surprise of no one, Cleveland did not.

It managed 320 total net yards in what became a season-ending, 24-10 victory for the Steelers.

And so it came to pass that for the fifth time in Dick LeBeau's nine seasons as defensive coordinator the Steelers finished on top of the heap in total defense.

Four of the Steelers' five No. 1 rankings in total defense have been achieved over the past six seasons (they went back-to-back in 2007 and 2008 and again last season and this season).

It's a big deal to the players, mostly because of their reverence for LeBeau. But we saw last season in the postseason and this season throughout the season what that can mean in the grand scheme of things.

Still, if they're keeping track it's better to be first than last. And while No. 1 in total defense might not in itself be an accurate reflection of the type of defense the Steelers played this season, it's at least an indication that there are bigger off-season concerns than the performance of the defense this season:

The performance of the offense and the performance of the special teams, to name two.

What the Steelers got from their defense this season wasn't dominating. They don't sack the quarterback like they used to and they don't collect turnovers like they used to and fourth-quarter leads are no longer a sure thing.

But that said, this remains a defense you can win with, given a corresponding level of support from the other two platoons.

The demise of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley as an outside pass-rushing tandem is problematic, as is the barely-perceptible development up front of former No. 1 picks Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward.

But there were also some obvious positives, from the continued growth of cornerbacks Keenan Ivory Lewis and Cortez Allen, to the unit's ability to get better as the season progressed, to the stumbling upon of Will Allen as an adequate replacement for Troy Polamalu when it comes to that.

Polamalu remains the defensive catalyst and the defensive difference-maker. He reestablished against Cincinnati the effect he can have on the group when he's not only playing, but playing the way he always has when he's been in the lineup for extended stretches.

The element of unpredictability he brings – following the tight end's motion back to the formation and then deciding at the last second to time the snap count, blitz the A-gap, and sack the quarterback was a classic example – often results in the sacks and turnovers eventually finding their way onto the stat sheet.

But even when that wasn't available this season, the defense for the most part found a way to hold up its end.

Polamalu's start against Cleveland on Sunday was his seventh of the season. And still the Steelers took the field against the Browns ranked No. 10 in scoring defense (20.3 points per game against). That's probably a more representative assessment of where the unit stands among its NFL brethren than the yardage championship the Steelers' topped off against the Browns.

If this team also had a Top 10-offense and a Top 10-collection of special teams it would still be playing.

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