If you want to know if a Cowher defense is Super Bowl caliber the first thing you need to check is the run defense. The 1995 crew was ranked 2nd in the NFL against the run and they went to the big game. The 6-10 1999 Steelers were 26th and, of course, did not even make the playoffs. After 1992, the playoff Steelers have been no worse than 3rd against the run save the 1994 bunch (8th) that were also 3rd against the pass.
In 2002, this Steelers defense compares favorably. They are currently ranked 2nd in the NFL. Part of that "success" stems from teams simply shying away from the run and trying to beat the Steelers through the air. Still, save the occasional lapses tackling, the Steelers are formidable against the run. As long as NT Casey Hampton is clogging the middle, the Steelers should continue to force teams to pass the ball.
What about the pass defense? In terms of yardage surrendered, the Steelers do not seem to need it to be great in order to succeed. The Steelers best pass defense (total yardage) was in 1999 when Pittsburgh was 3rd in the NFL. The Steelers, as noted above, were 6-10 that season. Teams did not need to the pass the ball against the Steelers. They could run all day (the Steelers were ranked 26th against the run that year).
In 1997, the year the Steelers and Kordell Stewart came within a few points of the Super Bowl, the Steelers were 21st against the pass. In 1998, a non-playoff year, the Steelers pass defense actually got better. But the big change was the drop from 1st against the run to 13th. The Steelers are currently 26th against the pass and giving up yards in chunks through the air. The Steelers were 8th last season. Does it matter?
All those passing yards that the Patriots and the Raiders racked up on the Steelers earlier in the season certainly did matter. And the sieve masquerading as a defense against New Orleans cost the Steelers a win and wasted a strong offensive performance. Yet the Steelers defense is better than the unit last year, much better.
What the Steelers defense lacked last year was the big play. The Steelers were 19th in 2001 in interceptions. In 1995, the Steelers were 3rd in that category. This year, the Steelers are currently ranked 2nd. The defensive big play is back in Pittsburgh after a four-year absence.
Big plays on special teams can swing the outcome of game. Steeler fans have learned this the hard way last January against New England. The same can be said for the defense. The problem early on this season was that the opposing defenses were making the big plays and the Steelers coughed up the ball on a number of occasions and Kordell Stewart still seemed plagued by the 4th quarter interceptions he threw in the AFC Championship. There were big plays galore, but the Steelers were not the ones making them.
Well, except for LB Joey Porter. Some seem to think Tampa Bay LB Derrick Brooks is the defensive player of the year thus far. The main reason is Brooks has been all about the big play. He's scored three touchdowns and intercepted the ball 4 times. But Porter also has 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, and 6 sacks. Joey has set the tone and now the rest of the defense is beginning to follow his lead.
Pittsburgh hoped to get Kendrell Bell on the field more when the thought during the offseason about putting him at rushing end in the dime. Bell is a playmaker, but Porter is who has emerged. The Steelers also hoped to get more out of S Mike Logan, a playmaker the Steelers have been looking for since the Steelers drafted Scott Shields in 1999. Suddenly, the Steelers are flush at playmaker.
When the Steelers have won the turnover battle this season, they have won the game. The Steelers now lead the AFC in take-aways and they are second in the NFL in interceptions. The sacks have come as well, the Steelers ranked 5th. All this and CB Chad Scott has yet to wake up from his slump. Sooner or later, he will join in the interception bonanza.
The take-away leader board looks like a short list of elite teams in the NFL right now: Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. These defenses confuse and pressure the opposing defenses into making mistakes.
The Steelers are getting QB pressure from all over the field with LB Clark Haggans and DE Rodney Bailey really stepping up their games. And watching QB Peyton Manning look as confused as a rookie on Monday night is testament to just how complex the Steeler scheme is.
The Steelers don't beat you with superior cornerbacks. They beat you with deception, blitzing from all over the field and disguising coverages. The Steelers don't shut down the opposing offense; they frustrate them and take quarterbacks out of their rhythm.
The Steelers defense is playing extremely well right now. Sure, they are not pitching shutouts, but since the game against New Orleans the Steelers are giving up on average 1.5 touchdowns per game while intercepting the ball 11 times. Along with the return of LB Bell to the starting lineup, the Steelers defense is rounding into playoff shape and there is not an offensive powerhouse left on their schedule.
The Steelers defense should continue to roll and gain confidence and will have the opportunity to compare themselves to the best defense in the NFL when Pittsburgh travels to Tampa Bay for a Monday night showdown on December 23rd. Joey Porter and his wrecking crew vs. Derrick Brooks and the big bad Bucs. At that point, we will find out if this crew is Super Bowl worthy.