PITTSBURGH - Suddenly, the Steelers defense is big and nasty once again. After struggling through most of the 2002 season, the defense seems to have re-established itself as a force to be reckoned with.<p> This Sunday, it was the Carolina Panthers who were the recipient of a sound thumping at the hands of the Pittsburgh defense who held the Panthers to zero yards in the first half of a 30-14 victory at Heinz Field.<p>

"We've kind of looked at everything and now we're running the plays that we run well," said linebacker Kendrell Bell, who had his fourth sack in the past three games Sunday after not having any in Pittsburgh's first 11 contests.

"This isn't the time of year to experiment any more. It's time to get back to the plays we run the best and that's what we've done."

In other words, the Steelers have stopped ordering the most expensive item on the menu, settling instead for steak and potatoes.

Earlier in the season, opponents spread them out with four and five players split wide and dictated what their defense did. Now, it is the Steelers who are doing the dictating. They have played much better against the spread by getting more pressure on the quarterback when teams have dared to run the spread against them.

That has forced teams to play a more conventional offense against the Steelers in an attempt to to keep their quarterback from getting killed. It's gotten to the point where the Steelers feel so confident in their abilities to defense the spread that they are daring opponents to use it.

"When you line up against us with a tight end, two running backs and two wide receivers, we're pretty stout that way," said defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "We'll do a pretty good job in those situations." "You've got to spread us out and everybody knows that. We've done a much better job against that as the year has gone on, we've made adjustments and changes."

The result is that Lewis finds himself coaching a defense that may be peaking at just the right time for the Steelers. A week after holding Houston to 47 total yards in a bizarre 24-6 loss, the Steelers held the Panthers to zero yards in the first half of Sunday's game. Carolina finished with 131 total yards Sunday, but many of those came in the fourth quarter after the game's outcome had been decided.

"A lot of teams will say 'look at the teams we've been playing'," head coach Bill Cowher said of the Texans and Panthers. "You can't control that. But at the same time, we are playing with a lot of confidence."

That confidence may have been shaken by what happened to the team early in the season, when it opened the season by having New England and Oakland pass them silly. It opened a Pandora's Box for the Steelers and they battled for much of this season to just achieve defensive mediocrity.

But in their past three games, the Steelers defence has allowed only 404 total yards and recorded 13 sacks, and has limited their opponents to converting just nine-of-37 third downs. The biggest difference has been the play of Bell, Jason Gildon, and defensive end Aaron Smith, all of whom were key performers last season when the Steelers had the league's No. 1 ranked defense.

Gildon and Smith were given big contracts during the offseason and Bell was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the year. For a variety of reasons, they weren't holding up their end of the bargain earlier this year and it was affecting the play of cornerbacks Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington, whose coverage skills were constantly being tested by the lack of a pass rush up front.

Now, with Gildon, Smith, and Bell playing better, the entire defense is hitting its stride. Suddenly, the group that everyone was pointing to as the reason that the Steelers could not make a run deep into the playoffs just might be the reason they do. It's better late than never.

--Dale Lolley

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