Defensive big plays lead way

<b>PITTSBURGH -- </b> With the running game mired in mediocrity, and the passing game misfiring and sputtering and taking concussive hits over the middle, the Steelers had to turn to, gulp, a defense that had seemingly been in decline the last few years and through this preseason.<br><br> And the, gulp, defense responded in a 24-21 win over the Raiders.

Not that there was anything surprising about the Oakland Raiders gaining a mere 2.8 yards per carry. Nor was it surprising that the young Steelers secondary allowed a couple of deep touchdown passes and 305 passing yards.

The surprising aspect of the defense was the big plays.

After hitting rock bottom in turnovers and sacks last season, and not producing one sack or turnover by the first team in preseason, the Steelers on Sunday forced five fumbles, recovered two of them, intercepted Rich Gannon twice and sacked him three times. One of the turnovers - a forced fumble by Clark Haggans that was recovered and returned 49 yards by Aaron Smith - set up a Steelers touchdown.

The big plays by the defense were quite obviously the difference in the game.

"Well, the media said we couldn't get any pressure on them," said outside linebacker Joey Porter. "You hyped us all preseason. You said we had no pressure, no turnovers, so we had to put our focus towards that I guess.

"I thought that once the regular season came around that the pressure and the turnovers would be there, and to start off the season we got the pressure and the turnovers."

Was new coordinator Dick LeBeau the difference?

Porter answered with a definitive maybe.

"That has a lot to do with it, but at the same time it's different from preseason to game time," he said. "In a game, you game-plan. Preseason, we're just out there running our plays and just trying to execute our defense. Now when you put a whole week, like the coaches did, into game-planning for somebody, they're going to put us in situations to make plays. We were in situations to make plays and guys got the fumbles, the sacks, the interceptions and it made for a good day for us."

The most consistent big-play threat was Porter's old college running mate Haggans, who had five tackles, two sacks, a defensed pass and two forced fumbles.

Not bad for a guy who was management's fall-back option during free-agency season.

"I've known the guy for eight, nine years now. I've always known what he can do," Porter said. "Now you've got to find out who you're going to double-team. If you double-team me, and leave Clark one-on-one, he's going to do what he did today. And there's going to be times when they'll double-team Clark and I'll have to step up. I knew what Clark could do since we were in college."

So where did Larry Foote come from? Kendrell Bell's replacement led the Steelers with six solo tackles, seven in all.

"He was our ace in the hole," Porter said before erupting into laughter. "We have a lot of good linebackers here and you wish we could play a 3-5 or something because Foote is definitely a guy who should be on the field. He knows what he's doing, he has the defense in hand, he's got a good grasp for it, and he's a playmaker. He was out there stuffing the run all day long and he just happens to be behind another good one in Kendrell."

Foote started the game by tackling Tyrone Wheatley and then barking at Wheatley after the play.

"Well, he went to Michigan, is from the Detroit area and we seen on film he likes to trash talk so, you know, we like to trash talk too," said Foote, who went to Michigan and is from the Detroit area.

"Wheatley's the type of guy who tries to intimidate the defense, so we let him know early that ain't gonna be the deal today."

Wheatley carried 11 times for 24 yards. That's 25 yards fewer than Smith's fumble return, which set up the Steelers' second touchdown.

"Twenty yards into it I was tired. I could feel the monkey getting on the back," said Smith. The other two Steelers turnovers were poor passes thrown by Gannon directly into the arms of James Farrior and Deshea Townsend. Smith had the Steelers' third sack.

However, the big plays didn't necessarily mean the Steelers played mistake-free defensive football.

The Raiders cut a 14-0 lead in half on a 58-yard touchdown pass to Doug Gabriel with 1:46 left in the second quarter. Ricardo Colclough correctly passed Gabriel off to safety Troy Polamalu, who played a post-corner pattern instead of a post pattern.

Polamalu took the blame for the touchdown, as well as the Raiders' other touchdown. He missed a sack on a third-and-12 incompletion. On the next play, Gannon threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Alvis Whitted over Deshea Townsend and Mike Logan.

"There are a lot of things that I personally need to work on and I'm disappointed definitely with my own performance," said Polamalu. "But a win's a win."

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