In the two years he worked as a wide receivers coach with the Steelers, Bob Bratkowski learned one very important lesson about their defense: Man, can they run to the ball. Now, having spent the past eight years trying to solve their defense as the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Bratkowski discovered another indelible element of their defense: Man, are they good.
And it doesn't seem to matter which aspect of the defense he might seek to attack. Finding a weakness is like trying to find Jimmy Hoffa.
"They get to spots where they are extremely hard to cut off," Bratkowski said. "They're always staying ahead of you. Every year, we look back at all their games, who ran best against them, and we still have a tough time figuring it out. Dick LeBeau has them put together extremely well right now."
The Steelers will bring more than the league's top-ranked defense into the postseason when they play the San Diego Chargers Sunday at Heinz Field in an AFC divisional playoff game. They will trot out a defense that, statistically, conceptually and strategically, is one of the best in modern history, a unit perhaps even more complete than the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and one that came within a whisker of several NFL standards.
Some teams load up to stop the run and, in the process, sacrifice the pass. Other teams drop extra players into coverage, use a cover-two or even cover-three scheme to stop the pass, and, in the process, sacrifice the run.
Not the Steelers. They shut down each with equal tenacity. If that's not enough, they also pressure the passer, forcing quarterbacks to run for cover from the AFC's No. 1 sack tandem -- outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, the NFL's Defensive Most Valuable Player.
"They have developed a sense of pride," said Bratkowski, who was with the Steelers in 1999-2000. "You have a lot of teams who have more individual interests in mind, but, when you get it like the Steelers get it, when you got 11 guys gang-tackling and running to the ball, that's what's special about them. They play for each other."
The Steelers finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the league in fewest points (223), total defense (237.2), pass defense (156.9) and yards per play (3.89). They were No. 2 in rush defense (80.3) and sacks (51)
They are a combination of The Steel Curtain and Blitzburgh, a unit that doesn't have a fancy nickname -- Woodley suggested The Steel Pit -- but certainly one that doesn't need any introduction. They use aggression, speed and the element of disguise to prevent 100-yard rushers and make many of the league's top-rated passers look like Sunday morning pickup quarterbacks.
"They're consistency, week in and week out, speaks for itself," said LeBeau, the team's defensive coordinator and mastermind of a unit that didn't allow a 100-yard rusher or 300-yard passer this season. "That's definitely the thing I'm most proud of. They just didn't have that low spot, they didn't have that game where the opponent made four or five [big] plays. And, in the NFL, you can play pretty well sometimes and give up three or four pretty good size plays. It's hard to do what they've done."
How dominant were the Steelers?
They came within 54 rushing yards of becoming the first team since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles to lead the NFL in total defense, rush defense and pass defense. After allowing Cleveland's Jamal Lewis more rushing yards (94) in the regular-season finale than any opposing back this season, they finished second behind the Minnesota Vikings in rush defense, allowing an average of 80.3 yards per game
Another NFL standard also eluded their grasp, this, though, by a much smaller margin.
The Steelers finished the regular season allowing an average of 3.897 yards per play, just 7/1000th of a yard from tying the 16-game record set by the 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who allowed an average of 3.890 yards per play.
"They look like some of the Steelers defenses in the past and also they look a lot like Baltimore when they killed everybody and won the Super Bowl that year," said Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, whose father, Bum, coached the Houston Oilers teams of the 1970s that faced the great Steel Curtain defense. "They're a stifling defense and they've played against some good offensive teams and made them look bad. They're playing really well."
The Baltimore defense to which Phillips referred was in 2000 when the Ravens allowed only 165 points, an NFL record for a 16-game season, and won the Super Bowl by allowing just 23 points in four postseason games.
But, while the Ravens' defense led the NFL in points allowed and yards rushing (60.6 yards per game), the unit did not exhibit the same type of total dominance as the Steelers. For example, the Ravens ranked eighth in the league in yards passing (187.3) and just 22nd in sacks (35).
"They have such a great combination of strength and speed," said Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, whose team was the only one to score more than 24 points against the Steelers this season.
"They close so quickly. I looked back over the course of six to eight games and looked for explosive plays ... there are very few of them. When you do find them, the ballcarrier is going down right at 20 or 21 yards. They just recover so well because of their team speed."
The Steelers allowed fewer big plays (20 yards or longer) than any team in the league. They ranked No. 1 in 20-yard runs (4), 20-yard passes (23) and 40-yard passes (2) and tied for second in fewest 40-yard runs (1).
Perhaps, the primary reason is the emphasis LeBeau, who has been the team's defensive coordinator since 2004, places on preventing big plays. It is the No. 1 mantra for his players. But right behind that is the importance he places on tackling the ball, or, as he said, forcing the opponent to snap the ball again.
"All I ever sensed from having coached there is that team tackling is like a snowball going downhill -- once you get it going, nobody wants to be left out," said Bratkowski. "If somebody isn't pulling their weight, they probably get heat from the other players.
"When I was at the University of Miami, when we won the national championship two out of three years, there was such a pride that a player was afraid to be the guy to make a mistake. Not only did he not want to let his teammates down, he didn't want to let past teammates down. The Steelers are the only other team I've seen like that."
"That's like our trademark," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "When we turn on the film, we want to see a group of guys running to the ball."
The Steelers want to do more than just support each other. They also want to make sure they don't disappoint LeBeau, the man they affectionately refer to as "Coach Dad."
"I don't know if there's anyone like him," said Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. "He's awesome. He's the best."
LeBeau, 71, is in his 50th year of coaching in the NFL, 10 of which have been spent with the Steelers. Since returning for his second tour of duty in 2004, the Steelers defense has finished No. 1 in the league three times -- 2004, 2007 and 2008 -- and never ranked lower than No. 9.
"It's kind of like a big brother or father figure up there teaching you the way and you want to make sure you make him proud," said cornerback Deshea Townsend.. "That's why we go out and play so hard."
"He treats the last guy on the team like the first guy on the team," inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "He treats Pro Bowlers and free agents the same way. I want to get into coaching one day, not at this level, at the high school level, but I definitely want to model myself after him, his style."
LeBeau still runs the zone-blitz defense he helped devise and conceptualize with defensive coordinator Dom Capers when Bill Cowher brought him in as the secondary coach in 1992. It is built on speed, aggression and deception, and it can be so confusing that opposing quarterbacks would have an easier time trying to solve a Rubik's Cube.
Just look at the passer ratings of five quarterbacks who faced the Steelers this season: Baltimore's Joe Flacco (22.2), New England's Matt Cassel (39.4), San Diego's Philip Rivers, the NFL passing leader (44.4), Dallas' Tony Romo (44.9) and Washington's Jason Campbell (49.2).
That doesn't even count Cleveland's Bruce Gradkowski, who finished with a 1.0 rating, nearly becoming the 10th quarterback in NFL history to finish with the Blutarski-esque 0.0 rating. And the Steelers were able to do that despite playing four games without Townsend and six without cornerback Bryant McFadden and defensive end Brett Keisel because of injuries.
"I don't think there's any coach in the business who can scheme like he schemes and game-plan like he does," said inside linebacker James Farrior, who, at age 33, was selected to his second Pro Bowl. "His wisdom and knowledge of the game gives him a great advantage over teams and over coaches. I don't see anybody outfox him."
About as often, perhaps, as someone gouges his defense.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com .