Dick LeBeau, the man in charge of the Steelers' defense, wants to exercise the same sense of caution after a four-game winning streak that he urged after the Steelers lost consecutive road games in Chicago and Cincinnati by blowing fourth-quarter leads. His message in both instances is the season still has a long way to go.
LeBeau can deliver that message to his players with less concern in his voice and fewer wrinkles in his forehead. If anything, he has to mask his satisfaction and curb his enthusiasm for the way his defense -- the best in the National Football League in 2008 -- has closed out each of the past three games:
• Three consecutive sacks against Detroit Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper after the Lions drove to the Steelers' 21, trailing, 28-20.
• Two forced and recovered fumbles and an interception on three of the final four series against the Cleveland Browns.
• Two defensive touchdowns -- a 77-yard fumble return by LaMarr Woodley and an 82-yard interception return by Keyaron Fox -- to ruin the Minnesota Vikings' unbeaten record.
"We hadn't closed out a couple games that we were in good position to close out and we said then, there's a lot of season to go," LeBeau said. "Obviously the last three games, we've made those kinds of plays. Up to that point, we hadn't done that. You don't become a championship team with that kind of scenario. That's certainly encouraging."
The Steelers report back to work today after a week off, and they do so with the knowledge their defense is beginning to show some of the tendencies it exhibited last season when the Steelers led the NFL in fewest points allowed, yards and passing yards and were second in sacks and fewest yards rushing.
Granted, they rank eighth in the league in total defense, especially after allowing 386 yards to the Vikings. But outside linebacker James Harrison is playing like he did last year when he was the NFL's defensive player of the year, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu is back after missing four games with a sprained knee and their rush defense, even without injured end Aaron Smith, hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 25 consecutive games. Statistically, their rush defense is playing better than last season, allowing 76.6 yards per game compared to 80.3 in 2008.
Curiously, they will face the Denver Broncos, a team that is playing defense like they did a year ago, next Monday night. Going into yesterday's game at Baltimore, the Broncos led the league in fewest points and were ranked No. 1 in total defense in the AFC.
"I would say the same thing now that I said after Week 3 -- there's a lot of season left and we have some growing to do defensively," LeBeau said. "Turnovers have a way of balancing out if you're playing good football ... which is starting to happen. I thought the Lions game, with the consecutive sacks, was big for our defense. It's one thing to say, yeah, it can happen; it's another thing to do something about it."
What did the Steelers do to solve their fourth-quarter problems?
"We just worked," LeBeau said. "Every year is a different year. You have a different mixture of guys, and it's been exacerbated by injury losses that have forced us to get different guys into the mix. You got to function and execute at certain levels in this league or you're not going to get it done. We're working on it, but when you have the same guys doing it week after week after week, it's a little easier to do. I'm encouraged. I've never been pessimistic about our possibilities. I think we have the potential to become a very, very good defense."
Some of LeBeau's other thoughts on his defense are:
• If free safety Ryan Clark is in any way jeopardizing his health in Denver, he shouldn't play. LeBeau said any person with half a mind would understand that. He also said he would never ask a player to do something he wouldn't ask his son to do. If Clark decides not to play, Tyrone Carter will start at free safety.
• Polamalu was more active and looked more involved against the Vikings than he did a week earlier against the Cleveland Browns, his first game back after missing four because of a sprained medial collateral ligament. "I thought he played well two weeks ago, but I think he's going to be more comfortable, more trusting, with that injury," LeBeau said.
• The 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Woodley against the Vikings is the closest thing he has seen to James Harrison's 100-yard interception return in the Super Bowl, mainly because of the escort Woodley received as he lumbered to the end zone. At one point, LeBeau said he stopped the tape and nine Steelers were within 5 yards of Woodley on the return. He cited blocks by Harrison, Deshea Townsend and especially Ryan Mundy for allowing Woodley to score. Mundy blocked wide receiver Greg Lewis, a player fast enough to catch Woodley, not once, but twice. "I never thought I would see another play like that," LeBeau said of Harrison's return. "But it was close."
• On Woodley's touchdown, Mundy was playing the linebacker position in the dime defense normally occupied by Timmons, who was injured. But Fox was playing that position a series later, and what happened? He intercepted Brett Favre's tipped pass and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown. "We got lucky there in rotation," LeBeau said.
No wonder LeBeau is feeling good about his defense.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com .