Steelers - Cowboys, Key Game

Pittsburgh heads to Dallas with a surprising 4-1 record, the AFC North lead and a much better defense than they had a year ago.

Quarterback sacks are up 33 percent, quarterback pressures 53 percent and takeaways 58 percent over this time one year ago, when they were one of the more passive defenses in the Bill Cowher coaching era in Pittsburgh.

There are several reasons: Dick Lebeau, father of the zone blitz, became their defensive coordinator; they replaced aging linebacker Jason Gildon with Clark Haggans; they inserted new safeties Troy Polamalu and Chris Hope along with cornerback Deshea Townsend, who started the second half of last season. They've also become more aggressive, blitzing more often.

"We probably have pressured more than we have to this point a year ago," Cowher said. "I think it is the make up of Coach LeBeau, and as long as they are working, keep calling them."

The Steelers went away from that last season when they played more Cover-2 to protect their corners and also dropped their linebackers into coverage more often.

That improved their pass defense but it did nothing for their totals in sacks (35) and turnovers (25), both lows for a Cowher team.

They already produced 12 turnovers and 12 sacks and their quarterback hurries are up 49 compared to 32 at this point last season. Linebacker Joey Porter leads them with 11 hurries, followed by end Aaron Smith's eight and, surprisingly, nose tackle Casey Hampton's seven.

LeBeau has been using his backup linemen more often to give his starters a breather and keep the pressure on.

"We have had six linemen up now the last few weeks because we are trying to keep those guys relatively fresh," Cowher said. "We are calling a few more blitzes. The combination has created a lot of pressure.

Their defense ranks third in the AFC in the red zone (13 visits, five TDs), fifth in yards allowed in the NFL per game (275) and fourth in yards per play (4.5).

Cowher won't admit it, but he has given LeBeau a lot more latitude to play aggressively, one reason the longtime NFL defensive coach agreed to join the Steelers and turned down an offer to run Buffalo's defense this year. Cowher and former coordinator Tim Lewis often were at odds over defensive philosophies and Lewis was fired for it.

Several players complained this summer that the defensive coaches last season did not allow them to play to their abilities, and praised LeBeau and secondary coaches Darren Perry and Ray Horton.

"Coach LeBeau," cornerback Deshea Townsend said, "applies pressure."

Townsend's performance is a good example of that. He has two sacks, two interceptions and leads the team with seven passes defensed. The Steelers send him on the corner blitz often.

SERIES - 29th meeting. Dallas leads the series 15-13. The Steelers beat the Cowboys in two out of three Super Bowls, but they haven't won in Dallas since 1982 and they haven't beaten them since 1988, losing their past four meetings.

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