The Steelers Keenan Lewis celebrates after picking off a Tyler Palko pass late in the 4th quarter of a Steelers victory in November. Lewis's play has been cited by teammates as a reason for the Steelers greatly improved pass defense in 2011.
Matt Freed /Post-Gazette
The Steelers' William Gay intercepts a pass in the end zone intended for Browns' Mohamed Massaquoi in the fourth quarter of a game earlier this month. Gay is having a career year at cornerback, leads the team in interceptions and is a major factor in the Steelers top-ranked pass defense.
The Steelers' Ike Taylor intercepts pass against the Bengals during a game earlier this month. Taylor has been a dominant defender this season, allowing only two touchdowns all year.
Ike Taylor breaks up a pass intended for the Patriots' Taylor Price in the fourth quarter of a game in October.
By Dan Gigler Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As the Steelers marched to the postseason a year ago, their pass defense was inconsistent at best, a major liability at worst and ranked 12th overall in the NFL. Ultimately, it was exposed by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
A year later, it is ranked first in the league heading into the regular-season finale Sunday in Cleveland.
Considering that the Browns possess an anemic passing attack that ranks 23rd in the league and is now led by journeyman backup Seneca Wallace, that ranking does not seem to be in danger of falling.
The Steelers have given up 675 fewer passing yards, 27 fewer passing first downs and 69 fewer completions than through 15 games last season.
They have allowed two passing plays of 40 yards or more after yielding seven such plays a year ago. The opponents' completion percentage is down nearly 6 percent. Oddly though, sacks and interceptions are down as well.
So what's different from last year? Corners and coaching.
"I think the biggest difference is the play of our corners, period," safety Ryan Clark said. "Those are the guys who were much maligned last year when talking about our pass defense, [but] they are the biggest reason for us being successful this year."
"I think the emergence of Ike as a shutdown corner really helps. It has allowed us to do more things defensively in the secondary ... I mean look at the way William Gay has played this year as compared to any other year, really stepping up and being a valuable, valuable piece of what we do defensively both inside and out."
After being demoted from a starting cornerback and used primarily as a nickel back in 2010, Gay retook his starting job from Bryant McFadden after week 1, and leads the team in interceptions. Taylor, whom many regard as a Pro Bowl snub, has allowed only two touchdowns all season.
"He's solid," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of Taylor. "Every week, he usually draws the toughest opponent to cover and he usually delivers. Corner is a position where you don't stop every pass, every down -- that's just the way it is -- but he certainly gets his percentage, and more. ... If we're doing OK on defense, Ike's doing OK."
Clark also pointed to the play of third-year cornerback Keenan Lewis on third down and in nickel packages as a major improvement.
Lewis, who struggled during his first two seasons, credited his improved play to first-year defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, one of the great defensive backs in Steelers history and a member of the team's 75th anniversary team.
"That's a guy who knows everything -- the game inside and out -- he's done it before. He played this defense. So that played a big role," Lewis said.
"Coach Lake stayed with me some times, during camp he helped me with my technique, tells me, 'Keenan you need to watch out for this.' It is just more specific things and, when you have that voice, sometimes it clicks for people ... it did for me."
LeBeau concurred: "Coach Lake has done a tremendous job in that area."
Regardless of the improvement, Gay said he will be unmoved unless the end result is one more victory than last season.
"If you focus on numbers, that's all you're going to have is numbers. You're not going to have anything else. You're not going to have any trophies. You aren't going to have any rings. So, who cares where you're at? It's where you finish.
"People are trying to search and see what's the difference. We went 12-4 last year. We're 11-4 right now. We got all the way to the Super Bowl last year, but didn't finish. So, for us to be better this year, we have to win the Super Bowl. That's how we look at it."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu and center Maurkice Pouncey were full participants in practice Friday and are expected to start Sunday in Cleveland.
The three Pro Bowl players were all listed as probable on the official injury report. Roethlisberger and Pouncey have both been hobbled by high left ankle sprains from the Dec. 8 game against Cleveland. Neither played last week in the win against St. Louis, but Polamalu (knee) did.
Wide receivers Mike Wallace (ankle) and Emmanuel Sanders (foot) also took part in a full practice and are listed as probable, as is linebacker James Harrison (neck).
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) did not practice and is listed as doubtful. Guard Doug Legursky (shoulder) and running back Mewelde Moore (knee) are out. Linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring) is questionable.
In the succinct answers department, center Maurkice Pouncey said he most certainly will play Sunday after missing two games. When a reporter asked if he might be better off resting for the postseason, Pouncey would have none of it.
"I sat out for two weeks. I'm tired of sitting out."
Score? What score?
If any Steelers try to sneak a peak at the score of the Baltimore at Cincinnati game, which will be played at the same time Sunday as their game against Cleveland, Ike Taylor will not be among them.
"We ain't got time for it -- I don't know if they'll even be showing it in Cleveland," Taylor said "I don't wanna know nothing. Just shoot me back to Pittsburgh after the New Year."
If Cincinnati beats Baltimore, the Steelers will secure at least a first-round postseason bye and a home game in the second round.
Taylor said he is only worried about the Browns, regardless of their lackluster season.
"We always say record really doesn't show how good or bad a team is -- I don't even know what their record is -- but we know the last two times we played them, it's been a tough game."
The Steelers beat the Browns 14-3 on Dec. 8. Their previous meeting, on New Year's Eve 2010, was a 41-9 Steelers victory.
Taylor said he hoped the Steelers would get a home playoff game for both the team and its rabid fans.
"No question -- for the fans man. Like I say all the time, just being in Pittsburgh for the postseason, seeing the fans at home, the atmosphere is unbelievable."