The season barely had opened when the Steelers experienced their nadir for 2011. It does not get lower than losing the opener, 35-7, in Baltimore, trampled by their archrivals.
If the Steelers did not implode from that debacle, they had nowhere to go but up, especially on defense, where they were ridiculed nationally for being old, slow and done. That day looked like the end for a proud, veteran defense that perhaps allowed a few too many of those veterans to hang around too long.
"We didn't panic like all you guys in the world panicked, even our fans," linebacker Larry Foote said. "We knew what happened; they hit us in the mouth. We knew we had to respond, and that's what we did. We didn't like it, some of the stuff we were hearing form the outside, it ticked us off. We were going to respond with it or without it, that's just the makeup of this locker room."
The Steelers responded by again playing dominant defense, so dominant that they finished No. 1 in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and points allowed. It was the fifth time in the past 11 years they have finished No. 1 on defense and eighth time since the NFL merger in 1970.
That is an incredible run, especially this season because of all their injuries.
They lost 30 starts by their regulars, some of their best players and all former Pro Bowlers -- Aaron Smith (12), LaMarr Woodley (6), James Harrison (5), Casey Hampton (3), Brett Keisel (2) and James Farrior (2).
In addition, longtime backup nose tackle Chris Hoke lost 10 games and No. 3 outside linebacker Jason Worilds four. They will take more body blows this week against the Denver Broncos when they sit safety Ryan Clark for health concerns and rookie Cortez Allen, part of their dime defense.
"It's been like that around here for a long time," Farrior said. "We always say the standard is the standard, the next guy up is somebody to come in and do the same job. Nobody can replace Aaron Smith, nobody can replace James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley, but we had guys come in there and do their part. I think we play good, sound, fundamental defense. That's what it's all about."
Coordinator Dick LeBeau, long one of the league's great assistant coaches, credited linebacker Lawrence Timmons for helping the defense maintain its level of play through injuries, especially the ones to Harrison and Woodley. Timmons started four games for Harrison on the outside and never leaves the field, playing in their nickel defenses in the middle and in their dime as a rush end when subbing for Harrison.
"He played about four different positions for us this year, and that's hard to do," LeBeau said. "Sometimes two or three of them in the same game, and that's really hard to do. He's kind of been the guy we wheeled around as we lost some of our players.
"I think the other factor is, they've all been in the same system and they play it well. Each new guy as he came in, I'm very proud of them."
There has been a culture of great defense for the Steelers over the past 40 years, and with an injured quarterback and an offense not performing at high levels lately, the defense may have to carry them if they want to reach their ninth Super Bowl.
"I'm very confident in our defense," Keisel said. "We need to get more turnovers, we need to make those big splash plays, but that's what the playoffs are for. The playoffs make a great defense. We'll be tested; that question will be answered this week and going on in the playoffs."
Instead of relief, the week keeps bringing more bad news regarding injuries for the Steelers.
Center Maurkice Pouncey, who returned to play Sunday after missing two games with a high ankle sprain, did not practice Thursday because his ankle took a turn for the worse.
"I practiced the other day and toward the end I got sore," Pouncey said after practice Thursday. "Today, I came in and my ankle was real sore, so I don't know what the turnout is going to be. Right now, I'm not practicing."
Pouncey clearly was not happy about the turn of events. In previous weeks, he predicted he would play, even though he wound up missing two games.
"I'm aggravated with it, I'm kind of stressed about it. I mean, an injury prolonged this long is aggravating. Hopefully, I can push through it and see how this week goes."
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said he is concerned about Pouncey's chance of playing Sunday. Doug Legursky would start at center Sunday in Denver if Pouncey cannot play and Chris Kemoeatu would start at left guard.
In the meantime, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned to practice on his own high ankle sprain, and Arians was a little more encouraged about that.
"A little better," Arians said. "He got some of it. He's moving around OK, not as good as he was, but OK."
Three other starters did not practice: Harrison (toe), Keisel (groin) and Troy Polamalu (calf). All are expected to play Sunday.
Backup tackle Jonathan Scott was limited in practice because of a back injury that is new.
Smith, at 282 pounds, 20 off his playing weight, spent some time in the locker room Thursday as he steps up his workout routine, although he is not sure if he will try to return to play or to retire.
Smith turns 36 in April and should have his decision by then. His 13th season was cut short again after four games because of a neck injury that required surgery in November. He said doctors gave him the green light to play football again, but he will talk it over with the Steelers and his family in a few months.
One thing he won't do is play or live elsewhere.
"Go someplace else? That would just change the whole idea of being a Steeler," Smith said. "I live here. This is my home. Even when I'm done, this will be my home. I love this town. I love the people and the city. All my kids have been born here. The church is here, the school is here. All their friends are here. I've been here really all my adult life."
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published January 6, 2012 5:00 AM