Play of Steelers' Defense in Convincing Win Over Titans Proves Why They're Not to be Overlooked Just Yet

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 09: James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers talks with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau while watching warm ups prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans on October 9, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

One of the absolute joys of running this website for nearly six years now is seeing Steeler Nation take advantage of the unique platform the site's technology affords fans to share their opinions, and then receive prompt feedback from other fans. Admittedly though, it's frustrating at times seeing that sounding board be used to rant against proven champions far before we have enough data to make sweeping conclusions about the Steelers chances in 2011. It's part of it; there is no censoring frustration amongst fans who just want to see their favorite team perform well one day per week. But for better or worse, it's just hard to maintain a high level of excellence for a prolonged period of time in the National Football League -- be it a team, an individual unit on a team, or even a singular player.

The Steelers defense has been experiencing that harsh reality through the first quarter of the 2011 season. The mojo is not completely gone though. As Neal Coolong and I discussed last week on the podcast, the Steelers have probably been at a disadvantage from the lack of physical practices. Gerry Dulac apparently dismissed such an idea in a recent chat, but lo and behold, the Steelers conduct practices in pads last week and suddenly look a lot more physical and in tune with what each other will be doing in traffic when they took the field on Sunday.

Let's get to some scatter-brained talking points about the defense's performance to start the week. We'll hand out a game ball later on Monday (it's not who you think it is), we'll break down a few plays in still shots and diagrams, and of course, we'll turn our attention to the stellar play of the offense in the 38-17 win. For now though, let's stay on the defensive side of the ball.

  • One thing that many fans and scribes overlooked was the simple fact that the Steelers played three of their first four games away from Heinz Field. Great teams should be able to win away from home, no doubt. But it has to be said that even the most spoiled of fan bases (us) can't expect success week in and week out on other teams' home turf. Pittsburgh has already traversed the most difficult part of the schedule, at least away from Heinz Field. The team may have its flaws and ultimately fall well sort of its goal to win a seventh Lombardi, but it's fairly clear through five games that the Steelers are going to be playing meaningful games in December (and hopefully January). 3-2 through this subtly tough start to the year is perfectly acceptable. This next two weeks should go along ways towards confirming whether the team has what it takes to not stumble against inferior competition.

  • I think it's also worth mentioning that the Steelers' two losses came on the road against teams who played lights out against us, only to fizzle out the following week. The Steelers first got dusted by the rival Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. It was crystal clear that Baltimore was more 'up' for the game than Pittsburgh, and the result was a resounding 35-7 beatdown by the Ravens. Give all the credit to the world to the Ravens for their fine performance in Week 1, but one small thing -- they had little left in the tank the following week when they traveled to Nashville to play the Titans in Week 2. Tennessee punched them in the mouth and won handily, 26-13. In Week 4, the Steelers lost their second game of the year, a 17-10 defeat to the Texans that left many fans wondering if this year just wasn't our year. The conversation centered around Pittsburgh's struggles and shortcomings, which in turn deflected attention from Houston and the fine game they played in victory. Wade Phillips' defense was awesome two Sundays ago, and it made the Steelers' offense look incompetent in the process. In our preview podcast for Week 4, Neal Coolong brought up a great point when he harkened back to the Phillips' orchestrated Cowboys defense in 2008 that made Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense look inept for almost all of the late-season matchup. Coolong predicted that the Steelers would again have a hard time slowing down Phillips' hyper-aggressive brand of defensive play-calling, and that's exactly what happened. The outstanding performance took a lot of the unit. Against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, the Texans played well enough to win. Yet, despite playing at home, it was Oakland who had that extra gear to turn to this weekend, no doubt a result of the Saturday passing of team owner Al Davis. Moral of the story for me I guess is simple -- (A) every team in the National Football League is going to have a few games each year where they are on a mission and won't be denied....(B) when you're a high-profile champion like the Pittsburgh Steelers, you better be able to withstand a number of those from the opposition over the course of a long season, and (C) doing so requires you not to throw away too many games like a Week 5 matchup against a Titans team that may be 3-1 but really doesn't have that same sense of desperate urgency as a Ravens or Texans team playing at home.

  • Chris Hoke baby. Love it. I know Hokey is the favorite player of Tim Gleason (aka maryrose), and on Sunday, we were reminded why so many longtime fans have identified the reserve defensive tackle as one of their favorite reserves. Hoke was a beast against the Titans. He finished with just two tackles on the afternoon, but his impact was far greater than that. Furthermore, I believe both tackles were for a loss. We'll get into more detail this week about how the Steelers did a better job collectively stopping the run, but when we do, Hoke's name will one again be front and center. It's easy to write off a guy like Hoke at 35 years of age when he struggles, but no more. Look, the Steelers signed the veteran to a one-year deal this offseason figuring he'd probably be able to help them win a game or two during the course of a long regular season. They were right. Hoke did just that in Week 5. So, sure, discuss the need to restock at NT in the immediate future, but for the remainder of this season, no more bitching about Hokey and his place on this team. He more than validated his value on Sunday.

  • A quick shout out to LaMarr Woodley for the impact he had on the Steelers' win. I was pretty outspoken in my critique of Woodley this past week. Here's one of the things I had to say about Woodley:  Woodley, to his immense credit, has great hands and sound instincts in the passing game. You can't say that about too many dudes his size. That said, he's not fast enough to where those traits come into play all that often in the high-speed National Football League. I'd say Sunday's gave supported all those claims. Woodley showed off those impressive hands when he picked off a pass that had been tipped by Brett Keisel in the third quarter, just as Tennessee was trying to fight and claw their way back into the game. Amazing ball skills from Woodley with a tackle draped all over him as he came down with the ball. Woodley finished with 1 1/2 sacks, 1 INT and 3 total tackles in Week 5. He'll get lots of pub and credit from the mainstream media for his performance. But he still needs to play better for this team to have championship aspirations. On too many plays he was a non-factor, and on at least one occasion in pass coverage, he looked far too slow afoot. Still, what I was asking for was for our highest paid player to help turn a game in our favor with his unique talent and skill set. He wasn't in on a lot of plays on Sunday, but he still managed to make a huge impact on those plays where he did make his presence felt. That's all I wanted to see, so color me extremely happy.

  • James Farrior - 13 tackles against the Titans. He's definitely in the twilight of his career, but the dude can still quarterback our defense. I thought Farrior played his best game of the still-young 2011 season.
  • Welcome back Brett Keisel. We missed you. It's hard to precisely quantify what Keisel means to this defense, but one very tangible way that he does is with his ability to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage with his impeccable sense of timing and underrated athleticism for a man his size. Woodley's interception came on a Keisel-tipped pass. Welcome back Brett, now stay healthy ya hear?

  • While we're on the subject of the defensive line....incredibly encouraging stuff from two of the Steelers' recent first round draft picks -- Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. Hood finished with half a sack in relief of Aaron Smith; Heyward rotated in during the second half and immediately made his presence felt. The rookie our of Ohio State forced a fumble with his sack of Matt Hasselbeck that was unfortunately recovered by the Titans. While Hoke led the way in helping shore up the run defense, Hood and Heyward were the main catalysts behind improving the pass rush from the front-seven. And they did so without any fancy stunts and against a very solid Titans' offensive line.

  • Close but no cigar for Troy Polamalu in Week 5. No. 43 was close to making a few game-changing plays, but was just a split-second late from doing anything other than making life difficult for Hasselbeck and the Titans' offense. God it's good to see him healthy and playing at a high level.

  • He's gotten enough abuse for his mistakes, so it's only fair to give him some props for a job well done. That'd be William Gay, who continues to play at a B/B+ level this year. We'll see how he does against the creme de la creme, but he's not been picked on like he was last year, and he continues to prove that he at least is a sound tackler in open space. 
  • It cost the Steelers on the one touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, but I loved seeing Dick LeBeau be more aggressive this week. After four weeks in which he seemingly played things fairly close to the vest, the Steelers were fairly creative in how they went about confusing Matt Hasselbeck. Whether the Steelers should have waited to Week 5 before realizing they might need to open up the book, so to speak, can be argued. But I think LeBeau now knows that he can win with this group of 'over the hill' veterans provided he forces the initiative with an attacking brand of defense.

  • The Bears and Lions are still scheduled to play in Week 5, but amongst AFC teams, the Steelers now rank quite high in most major traditional statistical categories. We'll get to those numbers once Week 5 is officially in the books, but you'll be seeing the Steelers in the top three in many significant categories.

  • I'm sure many fans were beside themselves watching the opening series of the game, a 13-play 69-yard drive that netted three points for Tennessee; I'm also confident saying that plenty hated to see Tennessee move the ball at the end of the game. Perhaps legitimate concerns, but here's what I know. Following that opening series, the Titans ran 17 offensive plays during the middle of the first quarter and the latter stages of the third quarter.  With those 17 plays, the Titans mustered a mere 49 yards of total offense, they punted four times, scored zero points, and unceremoniously had the first half clock expire on them. .More on this later in the week, but the defense continues to have stretches where they're unequivocally impossible to advance the ball against. If they can clean a few things up around the edges, look out, this unit can be every bit as dangerous as the 2008 unit that paved the way for a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
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