As World Turns, Defense Hopes to Keep Pace

The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense is one of the reasons the college spread offense has moved into the NFL. Like it or not, the players have learned to cope with it.

PITTSBURGH – When presented with the facts, James Farrior shook his head.

"What's the world coming to?" he said.

It had nothing to do with protesters tethered to the West End Bridge, or the G-20 police state of the city surrounding him. It had to do with the traditional styles of two of the NFL's oldest and most proud franchises, the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers.

A week after both swore to regain their physical edge with a rejuvenated running game – in weather fit for the running game – the franchises that spawned Walter Payton and Franco Harris threw the ball twice as many times as they ran it. And the result was a hard-fought, physical, low-scoring game in which no one questioned either side's strategy.

Rick Gosselin, the esteemed writer for The Dallas Morning News was at the game and wrote: "I've come to the realization that the spread offense is a lot closer to becoming an NFL staple than I envisioned. I believe it's already here."

Steelers fans have already become conditioned to the spread on both sides of the ball. On offense, we grumbled about it all the way through the Super Bowl. The win there allowed some of us to accept the philosophical change. In fact, some of us wanted more of it Sunday in Chicago.

"Where's the no-huddle attack?" I asked myself in the middle of the second quarter.

On defense, the Steelers and their fans have seen it at times over the years. The New England Patriots spread the Steelers out on opening day in 2002 and threw it 43 times in an easy win. It's taken the rest of the league seven years, but it appears that they're all in this together now.

Since halftime of the Super Bowl, three teams have called 111 pass plays and 45 run plays, and this in games decided by four points or less. Obviously, none of these teams was frightened by James Harrison's 100-yard interception return of a 1-yard pass.

Of the three opponents, only the Cardinals could be considered a passing team. But last week the Bears called 43 passes and 16 runs.

Is it a sign of things to come the rest of the season?

"I hope not," said Farrior. "It just takes away from our aggressiveness."

Of course, that's the point. No one can run on the Steelers as they are currently designed. In the last 92 games, since the end of the 2003 season, only four runners have gained 100 yards against them. And teams can't drop back seven steps and sling it deep, either; not against those pass-rushers. Even though the Bears blatantly held Harrison 10 times in his 18 rushes last week (called once), Cutler only dropped back seven steps nine times.

So, if you're not going to run against the Steelers, and you're not going to let their pass-rushers rush, has their great defense been compromised?

"Not necessarily," Farrior said. "I think we're capable of defending any way a team tries to attack us. If they're going to dink and dunk us, I think we can defend that pretty well. I think we did a pretty good job in the Chicago game except for two plays. Other than that I think we played it pretty well. They had a couple drives and we had a couple of miscommunications by our defense, but I think we can play any type of style a team wants to play us. I think we've got the type of athletes who can adjust."

To that, free safety Ryan Clark says bring it on.

"Keep letting them do it," said the Steelers' free safety. "It's on those guys to complete those passes. I think there's a little panic over the fact they were able to move the ball. I mean, still in all they scored 17 points. There's no reason to panic. The one thing you don't see is guys running down the sideline catching touchdowns for 70 yards and 80 yards. You don't see things like Chris Johnson not being covered. We do those little things to make it hard for teams to score. If a team throws 15 screen passes, or if a guy has to complete 27 balls to score 17 points, I can live with that. But you don't want a team to have 15 minutes of possession like the Colts did and win the football game with 27 points.

"What can help us defensively is to keep scoring," Clark continued. "If the offense gets up 10 points, 14 points, teams are going to have to come out of that. You're not going to run up a lot of points doing that. It's hard for teams to consistently put together 10-play, 11-play drives on us throughout a game. So we're going to let them do it.

"You've got to pick your poison. In the NFL, you can't stop everything. So we've elected to give up a couple of short outs, or a curl pass, things like that. You're just hoping that the longer the drive takes, there's an opportunity to make a mistake and for us to capitalize."

The Cincinnati Bengals are up next. Would the strong-armed Carson Palmer disregard his big and fast receiving corps to play Small Ball?

"I can see them doing anything," said Farrior. "They tried to come out and run a lot of screens and a lot of now passes on us before. They've got it in their repertoire."

What is the world coming to?

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