Shocker: Steelers finish with top defense


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The final numbers have been tallied and a new champion has been crowned -- the Steelers defense finished atop the National Football League for 2007.

Now that defense has a more difficult job -- go out and prove they're not mere paper champions Saturday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Because anyone who saw the Jaguars shred that defense on the ground Dec. 16 would not dare declare it the best in the NFL.

The Jaguars ran for 224 yards with Fred Taylor piling up 147, both Heinz Field records for an opponent, in a 29-22 Jacksonville victory.

"They got us pretty good," linebacker James Farrior said. "But we're going to be ready this time. Hopefully, it won't go the same way. They should be coming here with a lot of confidence. They beat us and they beat us convincingly."

That's happened a lot lately. The Steelers have lost three of their past four games and surrendered an average of 28.5 points in those final four.


NFL playoffs Wild-card round:
Jaguars (11-5) vs. Steelers (10-6)
  • When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
  • Where: Heinz Field.
  • TV: WPXI.
  • Line: Jaguars by 1 1/2.

The No. 1 defense in the NFL has been leaking yards and points lately, and making people wonder if their stats weren't built against early creampuffs and before defensive end Aaron Smith was knocked out for the season Dec. 9 during a 34-13 thumping in New England.

"We need to get back to smashing the run," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "That's what we do best. We haven't shut down an opponent's running game in the past few weeks, but we have to start again on Saturday."

The Steelers defense ranked third against the run in the NFL by allowing an average of 89.9 yards per game and was third in pass defense, allowing 176.5 per game.

That shows balance and domination ... on paper.

"That's what we do, stop the run, and we haven't been doing that the last couple of weeks," safety Tyrone Carter said Sunday in the Steelers locker room after a couple of no-name Baltimore backs ran over them again. "Right now, it's over, it's new.

"If you ain't ready to play in the playoffs, you don't belong in here. We have great character on this team. I know we're going to be ready for Jacksonville."

The Jaguars are an early 2-point favorite to win. One thing the Steelers do have going for them is history. No opponent has beaten the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh in the same year in the club's 74 previous seasons.

NFL total defense

Final regular season statistics

Rank/Team

Yards per game

1. Steelers

266.4

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

278.4

3. Indianapolis Colts

279.7

4. New England Patriots

288.3

5. Tennessee Titans

291.6

Jacksonville will try to become the first, and no Steelers player thought the Jaguars would try anything different than they did Dec. 16 in Heinz Field.

"No, no, why would they do that?" linebacker Larry Foote responded, confused at the question. "They ran successfully on us -- why change?"

Some teams have been known to do it as a surprise tactic. The Steelers, for example, went into Indianapolis two years ago for a playoff game with virtually everyone, including the Colts, expecting them to run and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning. Instead, Ben Roethlisberger threw often in the first half, they jumped out to a lead and went on to an upset victory.

So what if Taylor ran for 147 and Maurice Jones-Drew tossed in another 69. No?

"What's the saying?" Carter asked. "If it works, keep going. They don't have anything to fix. They killed us with it.

"It's a copycat league. They're going to go back and see the things they had success with and see if we correct them. If we don't correct them, they're going to kill us and that's the bottom line."

The Steelers have lost two starting defensive players since they were stuffing running backs -- Smith and free safety Ryan Clark. Strong safety Troy Polamalu has missed a handful of games and also played through rib and knee injuries. Otherwise, the starters on defense have remained relatively healthy.

"I have a lot of confidence in this defense," said Farrior, its captain. "I know these guys, we know how to play and we know how to play well."

Saturday, they get another chance to show they can do it, particularly against the run.

"That's the key to victory," Foote said. "That's what they do and as a linebacker, I'm geeked up for that -- a playoff game, Saturday night in Heinz Field.

"Knowing they're going to come here and run it, what more could you wish for?"




Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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