Defense remains No. 1

Certainly the Steelers went into Sunday's regular season finale at Buffalo with the thought of winning. But its defensive players also had something else in mind in their 29-24 victory over the Bills.

"We wanted to keep the No. 1 defensive ranking in the league," said linebacker Joey Porter. "We worked so hard for it all season long. We didn't want to give it up in the last game."

They didn't. The Steelers (15-1) finished the regular season with the league's No. 1-overall defense, the second time in the past four seasons they have done so.

The 258.4 yards per game their allowed this season edged the Bills for the league's top spot. It is the fewest yards allowed per game by a Steelers defense since the 1990 team gave up an average of 257.2 yards per game.

"We really wanted to hold on to that No. 1 spot for Coach (Dick) LeBeau," Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu said of the team's defensive coordinator. "He did such a good job this season, we really wanted to do that for him."

LeBeau's second stint with the Steelers has produced excellent results. The Steelers' defensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996, LeBeau left for a similar job in Cincinnati, eventually becoming the Bengals' head coach. He spent last season as a special assistant in Buffalo before replacing Tim Lewis as the Steelers' defensive coordinator this season.

LeBeau, the creator of the zone blitz defense, brought back more of that blitzing style and helped the Steelers not only rank first in the league in yards against, but in points against as well. The 251 points the Steelers gave up this season were also the fewest in the league.

But holding onto those spots Sunday wasn't easy. With home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs already clinched, head coach Bill Cowher substituted freely in the team's regular season finale at Buffalo. The team's first-team defensive unit played only the first four series against the Bills before Cowher starting pulling players.

The starting unit gave up a three-yard touchdown run by Willis McGahee – on a drive in which McGahee carried the ball four times for 41 yards – in the first quarter on the Bills' second possession. Cowher wanted to start pulling players at that point, but Porter and others lobbied against it.

"We didn't want that to be our last time on the field before the playoffs," said Porter. "We all wanted to keep playing."

The Steelers limited the Bills to 88 total yards in the first half and 267 total yards in the game, holding onto their No. 1 ranking.

"I kept on telling those guys out there that we couldn't let up," said inside linebacker Larry Foote, the only regular starter to play the full game. "We gave up that long pass play late in the game, but other than that, we held up our end."

Buffalo quarterback Drew Bledsoe connected with rookie receiver Lee Evans for a 56-yard gain coming out of the two-minute warning to account for a large chunk of the Bills' 189 passing yards. But that was one of the few big plays given up in the game by the Steelers.

"We wanted to hold up our end of the bargain," said cornerback Ricardo Colclough. "We all worked so hard all season to get that No. 1 ranking. We didn't want to give it up at the end."


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