Defense backbone of historic finish

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich tradition of defensive excellence, but few teams have finished the season with as much authority as the current edition.

PITTSBURGH – Dick LeBeau uses numbers to gauge his defense, but he doesn't seem to care about the numbers that indicate his defense is finishing stronger than almost every other defense in franchise history.

In the last three games, the Pittsburgh Steelers have allowed 12 points. If they hold the Detroit Lions – the NFL's 27th-ranked offense -- to three points or less Sunday, LeBeau can say his unit finished with the greatest closing kick in team history.

Does that interest him?

"No," he said. "It just means that we won three very important games and we have one more real important one. It wouldn't matter whether we gave up no points or whether we gave up 25 if we got 26. It's just the team situation. But our guys have been playing well here lately."

The Steelers allowed those 12 precious points against teams with a cumulative winning percentage of .533. The 1972 (15 points) and 1976 (19) teams allowed the fewest points in team history over the final four games of the season, and those teams played opponents with cumulative winning percentages of .402 and .357.

LeBeau doesn't care about those numbers, but he keeps his eye on some others.

"I think points yielded is always an important stat because that's what decides the game," he said. "But yards per snap is a very telling statistic. It'll tell you what you're doing every time they center the ball. Yards per pass is very important. That means you have to get some pressure on the quarterback and have some negative plays in there. Yards per reception; those come into play with pressure and sacks. But I think the yards per snap is as important as any of them."

The Steelers rank third in total defense, down two spots from last year's top ranking. But LeBeau's favorite statistic – yards per snap – has improved. The Steelers allow 4.5 yards per play to rank second behind the Chicago Bears (4.2). Last year, the Steelers were third in the league by allowing 4.7 yards per play.

"We had those two games right there that we hit a low spot and gave up too many points, gave up too many plays," LeBeau said. "If you could throw those two out it's been pretty consistent. After those two, we've really settled into playing our best defense of the year, which is a good time to doing that."

Only a month ago, after high-scoring losses to Indianapolis and Cincinnati, the Steelers' defense ranked 10th in the league. They're now third. What sparked the turnaround?

"I don't think you can pinpoint any one part of it," LeBeau said. "We had a lot of sacks last week. We've had consistent pressure on the quarterback in this winning streak. The one constant: Teams have not been able to run the ball on us very effectively and that's enabled us to do some things in our pressure defense. So if anything I'd say it's been the consistency of the run defense that's come into play throughout the year really."

The Steelers allow the fewest yards per carry (3.4) and they allow the second-fewest net yards per pass (6.33). Obviously, defense has been the backbone for what could go down as the greatest stretch run in team history.

Only four Steelers teams – 1972, 1976, 1978 and 2004 -- finished regular seasons with four consecutive wins. The 1976 team had the highest average margin of victory (+20.7) and the 2004 team played the most difficult competition (.531) in those four games.

This team beat its last three opponents by an average margin of 22.7 points per game, and, counting the Lions, is doing so against a .483 schedule.

The current numbers say this is one of the greatest finishes – if not the greatest – in team history, and it's been fueled by defense.

"Well," said the defensive coordinator who doesn't sneer at statistics, "we've still got one more that we have to win."

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