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Defense Raises Level When Needed

Jim Wexell breaks down a big win against a bad team.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who just watched a dominant defense carry the Pittsburgh Steelers to a win one week after losing its heart and soul for the season:

* Come on up for the rising, come on up tonight.

* Not that I agree with Springsteen that the Steelers defense has necessarily risen to a new level, but there's no doubting it rose to the occasion Sunday.

* The Browns have a bodaciously bad offensive line. And so do the Indianpolis Colts, who are Thursday night's opponent. But, man, grab a win there, and then rest a few days to ponder the rising talents of Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, Sean DavisArtie Burns and Javon Hargrave.

* It's at least a step. Another confidence-builder against the Colts and these young guys will truly begin believing in themselves.

* Ricardo Mathews' tackle-for-loss on the first snap Sunday may have set the tone. He is Cameron Heyward's immediate replacement. An 8-sack performance followed.

* The broadcasters gave Lawrence Timmons the first game ball, but I have to give it to Tuitt, who had 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hits and 6 tackles.

* Heavy lies the crown of leadership, and Tuitt seemed to struggle with it the previous two games Heyward had missed. But Tuitt was different the week leading up to this game. He smiled easily, didn't duck reporters and gave insightful answers about his new role.

* And then he kicked royal ass.

* Tuitt got the sack ball rolling late in the first quarter. It was followed on that possession by Hargrave's first career sack.

* Tuitt should've been given credit for an intentional grounding penalty, that actually became a third-and-17 conversion because of Burns' hands-to-the-face penalty. Dumb penalty, yes, but it should've been negated by a grounding call.

* When a QB throws a ball straight into the ground to avoid a sack, isn't that the genesis -- or the very definition -- of the grounding call?

* But the drive continued, and served to provide more defensive highlights, such as Shazier's tackle of lightning-quick Duke Johnson in the open field. Shazier made it look too easy, at least compared to Timmons, who couldn't run Johnson down a few plays later.

* Not every team has a linebacker with 4.40 speed. And that "rare air" speed makes those next to him seem slow.

* OK, so the Browns moved the ball to the goal line, and Tuitt and Big Dan made like Aaron and Casey and drove the first-down play back for a loss. On second down, James Harrison destroyed Spencer Drango, and then QB Cody Kessler, to set the new Steelers all-time sacks record. Tuitt then tackled Kessler on a scramble to force the Browns to settle for a field goal.

* That was the best defensive series of the day, at least at THAT goal line.

* The Browns did score on their next possession. They were helped by a fourth-and-9 completion in tight coverage by Timmons and Davis, and a dropped interception by Timmons, and a whiff on a potential sack by Davis, and a late, great block by the RB on a second Davis blitz. But the 10th extra point of the 1 p.m. games across the league was missed, driving home Mike Tomlin's two-point philosophy all the more.

* Yep, I had to get that one in there, because I might be the only guy in town who likes Tomlin's approach to conversions.

* However, at this point, at 17-9, Steelers fans were  anxiously lamenting the offense's inability to have scored more. It was trash-the-coaching-staff time on social media, and I didn't understand why.

* It seems that any penalty -- after four consecutive losses -- is a "dumb penalty" by an "undisciplined team" these days. So let's skip back to the offense for a minute.

* First of all, getting off the goal line following Burns' interception was a victory in itself. But the drive rolled on before a "dumb penalty" stopped it. I have to say that since Bell gained 90 yards on the drive -- yes, 90 -- he, and he alone, was allowed this transgression. Yes, his early jump on second-and-1 at the 9 cost them. But, again, he was allowed to err. I mean, he had to be tired, right?

* The other part of the failed conversion there had more to do with having so little opposite Antonio Brown in the receiving department.

* Don't take it the wrong way, fans of Cobi HamiltonEli Rogers and the tight ends, but there is a learning curve involved. As for Ben Roethlisberger and the coaches, I believe it's fair to cut them some slack after losing three starting No. 2 WRs to injuries and the tight end to an ankle issue that doesn't appear to be getting better anytime soon.

* The stalling of the second drive at the 15, in my opinion, was also due to the inexperienced receivers. And there really was nothing wrong with settling for field goals in those windy conditions.

* The third drive had a peculiar ending. I would've kicked the field goal and sweated out the small 9-0 lead in the second half. But Tomlin gambled, and it paid off with an 8-point play.

* Some were critical of the officials' calls against the Browns there, but in my opinion A.B. would've caught the one pass for a touchdown had Joe Haden not interfered.

* One writer called Tomlin's strategy there "arrogance." I disagree. An arrogant stance would've been to believe anything just over a touchdown would stand up throughout.

* In soccer, there's a school of thought that says the most dangerous lead is 2-0 because it's still close, but the team with the lead tends to ease up.

* Perhaps that's part of the reason behind Tomlin's thinking. A 6-0 lead certainly keeps your team at attention through the break, but a 12, 13 or 14-0 lead provides a definitive winning edge.

* The last comment about the offense: Bell has now fumbled in each of the last two games. Both went out of bounds. He had never fumbled in high school or college, or in his first two seasons in the league. He fumbled once last year. I now believe him to be done fumbling for the season.

* I know. I just mushed him good. Just hope the one Thursday night goes out of bounds as well.

* The coup de grace for the defense occurred just after the heinous non-call of the Haden takedown of A.B. in clear view of all.

* I appreciate Tomlin taking money out of his pocket to call the officials out for their poor game, as he did Sunday, and this call was the worst of them all. You have to complain after a win. It's merely written off as sour grapes if a coach does it following a loss.

* But anyway, a play after Mike Mitchell legally blew up Terrell Pryor on an incompletion, Shazier's strip sack at the goal line was scooped up by Hargrave for the game-clinching touchdown. It was the crowning play not only for a defense that needed this kind of a game, but for all of the young Steelers defenders. They just might use this as a spark to the confidence they need to become a winning unit.


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