They played against some good quarterbacks and not-so-good ones, and they played against his little brother. Today, the Steelers' defense, stifling offenses like no other through half a season, opens the second half against the real thing.
Peyton Manning is this generation's Dan Marino or, as 70-year-old Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, "as good as any quarterback who ever played."
No one has returned the compliment to LeBeau's defense, yet it has dominated the first half of the season like no other in 2008. The Steelers defense is first in the league in fewest yards allowed, first in fewest passing yards, first in sacks and second in points allowed.
A classic matchup, then, promises to take place late this afternoon at Heinz Field between a great quarterback and a great defense.
"Whenever we get a matchup like this when we go against a great quarterback with a great offense, we want to step up to that challenge," defensive captain James Farrior said.
The Steelers defense has met all challenges to the point that it is on pace to eradicate records set by some of the franchises top defenses, including one considered the greatest of all time.
The 1976 Steel Curtain, which shut out six of its final nine opponents when it permitted only 28 points during that span, allowed an average of 237.3 yards per game. This year's version has permitted 234.1. The Blitzburgh defense of 1994 set the franchise standard with 55 sacks (the 1984 Chicago Bears hold the league record with 72). This one has 32 at the halfway point.
They don't want to be measured against history, though.
"We're just going to keep playing hard and plugging away," Farrior said. "We'll talk about how we did at the end of the season."
The defense has carried the offense, which ranks 25th in the NFL and bears the responsibility for the team's two losses -- 15-6 at Philadelphia and 21-14 to the New York Giants. The offense lost seven turnovers combined in those two games and allowed 14 quarterback sacks.
LeBeau vows he has done nothing differently with his schemes or blitzes this season.
"No question the whole defense is just playing at a high level," LeBeau said. "Both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have been very powerful forces out there; even when they don't get the sack they're forcing it inside to our inside rushers and we're getting some sacks. It's the players, that's what I attribute it to."
The Steelers have had some great, pass-rushing outside linebackers in the past 25 years but none had this kind of pace. Harrison has 10 sacks and Woodley 9 1/2. The individual Steelers record is 15 and the most combined by a pair is 24.
"We have those two outside boys just wreaking havoc now, and that frees other guys to clean up," Farrior said.
Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy ran the Steelers defenses in the 1980s when Mike Merriweather set the sack record at 15, and was Mike Tomlin's first boss in the NFL at Tampa Bay. He concurs that the difference in the Steelers defense from the past few years is the pass rush.
"It's not that they are just getting free guys all of the time," Dungy said. "Those guys are beating blocks and beating offensive linemen."
Sacking Peyton Manning, or fooling him by disguising defenses and blitzes has never been easy. Manning has been sacked just nine times, although the man who threw 49 touchdown passes in 2004, a record until Tom Brady tossed 50 last season, has only 12 at the midway point.
"He's so accurate and quick with the ball you're not going to fool him," LeBeau said. "He's going to get rid of the ball, but still I don't think you can let him sit back there either. He's going to probably get you some, no matter what you do, but we'll try to get some pressure on him."
For a guy such as Woodley, in his second season and first as a starter, it's like pitching to Babe Ruth.
"It's very exciting, just watching him over these past few years and how he's running that offense," Woodley said. "They go to that no-huddle offense and just move downfield. As a defense, you don't have time to adjust or put personnel on the field. You have to work with the package you have out there."
It'll be strength vs. strength. The Steelers defense has allowed no pass completion longer than 35 yards and only seven of 25 or more. Clinton Portis has the only run against them longer than 15 yards -- 22 on Monday night.
Ben Roethlisberger promised this week that he and his offense will play better in the second half of the season. The defense can't do much more.
"We're happy with how we're playing thus far," defensive end Brett Keisel said, "but at the same point we know have a lot of football left. We have the second half, the most important half, coming up. We just want to play our best ball at the best time of year."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published November 9, 2008 5:00 AM