PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers entered Sunday's game with the all-important task of keeping their quarterback standing upright.
The Kansas City Chiefs should've applied the same strategy.
Instead of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali harassing Ben Roethlisberger, it was the Steelers taking a page out of their storied past in giving Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith a full workout at Heinz Field in the Steelers' 20-12 win that clinched a playoff berth.
Smith went down six times, twice by Jason Worilds, once each by James Harrison and Cameron Heyward, those two shared another sack, and the final one was the first career sack from rookie Stephon Tuitt.
Those players made up the primary four-man front in the Steelers' nickel defense, which was on the field most of the game because the Chiefs used so many three-WR sets. It paid off for the Steelers to the tune of their most prolific sack total since Dec. 23, 2012.
"We challenged those guys this week," said Mike Tomlin. "Kansas City has the number-one red-zone defense in football so we knew that points could be tough down there for our offense."
How exactly did Tomlin challenge the Steelers' front?
"He challenged us in a way that they had a good running offense," said Heyward. "We knew it was going to come down to that. Obviously they passed more today but from last week we gave up a couple scrambles, we gave up a couple screens, and we were like 'They're going to come back with that.' And he challenged the whole defense in that way. I just thought we answered the call, just didn't give up the big play, and didn't let them get seven points with a touchdown."
The Steelers allowed four field goals in four red-zone attempts by the Chiefs, and the biggest play by the Chiefs was a 33-yard pass to Albert Wilson, the only play longer than 19 yards. The Steelers also held the Chiefs to 39 yards rushing at 2.8 per carry. That, in turn, helped the Steelers turn up the pressure, particularly from Harrison.
"It was the best I felt all year," said the 36-year-old Harrison. "To be honest with you, I probably haven't felt this good in the past two or three years."
Harrison was held out of the last two games with a knee injury just after drawing his first starting assignment since coming out of retirement in late September. He wanted to play last week in Atlanta, but in retrospect was happy he didn't.
"It wasn't about getting another gear, it was about getting healthy," he said in correcting a reporter's question. "If I played last week obviously I wouldn't be where I'm at now. It definitely helped to get healthier."
It was Harrison's third multi-sack game of the season -- he now has 5.5 -- so he was asked if he ever imagined he could look as dynamic as he had been in his greatest years.
"I prayed on it enough," he said. "Like I told you before, it's not me, it's all God. I'm just old and slow. God's driving the bus. I'm just riding."
Harrison looked far from "old and slow," and his bookend, Worilds, looked like a young and powerful up-and-comer off the other edge. The two looked as formidable as Harrison and LaMarr Woodley ever did in their glory years.
"I'm sure he feeds off me and I feed off him," Harrison said. "There comes a point where if he starts making too many plays they're going to throw an extra body at him, same with me. It helps him the same as it does me."
It also appeared the early inside pressure from Heyward set up the outside pressure later in the game.
"But I think our outsides had a helluva game," said Heyward. "We benefitted from them; they benefitted from us. I just think we had good cohesion between the two."
But the biggest play from the Steelers' front may have been made by Tuitt, who forced a fumble in the middle of the third quarter.
With the Steelers holding to a 10-6 lead, the Chiefs moved to the Pittsburgh 28. On the second-down snap, Tuitt fought off a double team to hold his gap, and then left the block to chase Charles with the ball a few yards downfield. Tuitt forced the fumble and Vince Williams recovered, and the offense turned it into seven points to put the game away.
"That was my favorite play," said Worilds. "I liked his hustle, his hustle to the ball. That's kind of our signature. We want that to be the signature of our whole defense. I think we've been doing a good job of doing that, but that kind of showed why we do it so much in practice."
Tuitt and Heyward echoed the sentiment and talked about the practice week being one of the defense's best of the season. And of course the team played how it practiced.
Is this a sign that the defense has arrived? That it has developed its personality?
"Nah," said Harrison. "We just had one game where we played a lot better than we have all year. We put together one of our more complete games. The big thing was we really stopped them in the red zone. We were able to stop them from getting sixes and they walked away with threes or we got a turnover one time. The big thing was our red zone defense was superb."
Is this Steelers team capable of a deep playoff run?
"We're heading in the right direction," Harrison said.