Steelers Defense Surprises Again

Jim Wexell with a breakdown of the good and bad in 24-14 win.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who predicted a shootout but is once again writing about the Steelers defense:

* Who figured such a defensive stretch after that Dallas game? I remember being asked if the Steelers gave up the last two touchdowns of that game on purpose. That's how bad the defense had been playing.

* Since then, the Steelers have allowed 30 points in three games.

* Granted, Cody Kessler and Scott Tolzien quarterbacked two of those games, but Eli Manning quarterbacked the third. A Hall of Famer, right?

* Certainly didn't look like one yesterday, but to quote Lawrence Timmons: "I don't feel like Eli really stepped through a lot of his balls tonight. He always had somebody in his face."

* It was the defense that scored the game-winning points actually. A safety broke the scoreless tie and the Steelers never lost the lead. Funny, of all the blatant holds James Harrison has wrought that have gone uncalled over the years, he scored two points with a ticky-tack call.

* Both elements of rush-and-cover were alive Sunday. While the pass rush got its safety and wouldn't allow Manning to drive and follow through, the young secondary kept Odell Beckham in check and Sean Davis picked off his first pass.

* Ross Cockrell appeared to be in charge of Beckham in the first half, but said it was just a mixing of coverages, that Beckham is a hard receiver with whom to match up because "he doesn't just stay out on the outside like an A.J. Green or Brandon Marshall. He goes all over the place."

* Beckham did finish strong to end with 10 catches for 100 yards, but had only one catch for 10 yards in the first half. Mike Mitchell helped Cockrell with some of that, too.

* I asked Davis if intentionally dropping a fourth-down interception near your own goal line is something that's ever discussed in today's football. "Yeah, that's what someone said," Davis said. "Maybe next time,. But I had to get my first one. I wasn't dropping that one."

* I can't remember the last time anyone at any level has batted away a fourth-down pass the way we instinctively did back in the day.

* I know. Get off my lawn.

* Timmons' interception not only showed off great instincts, leaping ability and hands, but the 10th-year veteran showed he still has the wheels with his 58-yard return. Timmons told me after the game he believes he has five more years left in him. Still, two of his teammates gave jabs. "I probably would've taken it to the house," said Ryan Shazier.

* Cameron Heyward also said Timmons should have scored. "Cam's always saying something," said Timmons, who was beaming after the game. "I love Cam. I love this team. You make a play like that and you get energy from the team. That's beautiful. That's why I think we're doing better because we have the energy, the camaraderie."

* Shazier said the defense is doing better because everyone's doing their job. It's the old Bill Belichick mantra that Keith Butler starting hammering home about six, seven weeks ago. "Yep, and it's working," Shazier said. "Guys aren't trying to do too much. When the plays come our way, we make them. We're not trying to go out of our way to make plays and make holes in our defense and that's really been making a big difference for us."

* The Steelers reverted to a formula that helped them win two Super Bowls last decade, that of stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback and then controlling the ball themselves. Troy Polamalu used to beg the Steelers to run the ball more often after Bruce Arians became entrenched, and Troy would've enjoyed the game plan Sunday. The Steelers rushed for 117 yards against a tough run defense and possessed the ball for 34:08. "That's great," said James Harrison. "It gives us time to sit over here on the sideline, catch our breath, get some water and just sit back and chill and watch them put in the work."

* A big part of the offensive game plan was the use of a third tackle, Chris Hubbard, on first down, along with multiples tight ends and sometimes a fullback, and pounding the ball with Le'Veon Bell. "Love it. Love it," said Bell, the first back in 13 games to gain 100 yards on the Giants. "On first-and-10 we got the big guys in, and whether they bring a safety down or not there's really nothing they can do. When the guys up front do their job, it makes it a lot easier for me to pick a hole and do what I want to do."

* That will be music to the ears of the many old-school football savants in Steelers Nation, but will it work against the Baltimore Ravens? Will they dare try the strategy with which they unsuccessfully remained so patient the last time?

* That's a big question, because the Steelers' passing game still needs another weapon. Ladarius Green, though, is becoming more of a pass-catching threat each week. He'll never be the rough-and-tumble tight end Heath Miller's conditioned this fan base to love, but 110 receiving yards is needed with the Nos. 2 and 3 receivers combine for only 29.

* Perhaps the most underrated offensive play of the game was made by Dave DeCastro. He picked up Jason Pierre-Paul as the pass-rusher was coming free on Roethlisberger, who was able to slide to his right and throw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown.

* Emergency kicker Randy Bullock didn't miss in four tries (one an extra point) and was told he would stick around another week as insurance for Chris Boswell's injury. But other than that, the special teams needs to take a long look in the mirror. The Giants punted four times and the Steelers committed three penalties, one a 15-yard facemask. The Steelers also were penalized on one of their own punts.

* On another day, perhaps this week on the road, the defense won't be able to cover up such sloppiness on special teams.


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