Three Steelers players responsible for a dramatic defensive turnaround since big Bengals drive in Week 7

Justin K. Aller

A 15-play, 80 yard drive by the Cincinnati Bengals seemed to be a slap across the face for the Steelers defense. Since then, the Steelers' defensive unit has come together, marked by the contributions of cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis, and the improvement of safety Will Allen.

It looked like confirmation of the end of the Steelers' reign as one of the league's top defensive units.

The Bengals' offense was getting itself back on track in their rushing game, running inside power with BenJarvis Green-Ellis off their guards seemingly at will.

In the end, a demoralizing 15-play, 80 yard drive culminated in a five-yard touchdown run by Cedric Peerman, giving the Bengals a 7-3 lead in Cincinnati on Sunday Night Football.

Then, something odd happened. The Bengals never drove for more than 32 yards. After getting a short-field touchdown off a Ben Roethlisberger interception, the Steelers allowed the seven-play drive, surrendering 32 yards and a field goal.

Outside of that, 17 plays run on five drives, one first down, for 28 yards.

Four three-and-outs.

The Steelers used exotic blitzes, timing them perfectly, bringing pressure when needed along with air-tight coverage. It was a work-of-art by a defensive group maligned by the media and its own fanbase for "playing too far off in coverage" and "not having a pass rush.

A fluke, perhaps?

Washington came into Heinz Field led by their rookie quarterback, a man about whom analysts swore up and down Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had never seen the likes of in his 50 years of professional football experience.

First drive by the esteemed Robert Griffin III, three plays, six yards and a punt. He put together an impressive 13-play, 80 yard drive that resulted in a touchdown pass, but after that, six drives for 154 yards and six points. That's without the drive at the end of the half, and their yielding kneel-down at the end of the 27-12 beatdown.

In that, the Steelers got two more three-and-outs. Only nine of their 12 points came on drives that started in their own territory.

On a roll, the Steelers went into their Week 9 game against the Giants knowing they are the best offensive team they'd face to that point in the season. Like the two teams coming before New York in the rejuvenated Steelers' defensive rebirth, they managed one long drive early, an eight-play, 72-yarder that resulted in a touchdown run for Andre Brown.

Before that, though, three drives, 11 plays, 56 yards, one turnover and zero points.

And after two long field goal drives, the Giants gained exactly -8 yards on three drives, running nine plays and allowing the Steelers to score 14 4th quarter points for the comeback win. That's three more three-and-outs, and only 10 points scored on drives starting in their own territory.

Adding it up, since the Bengals whipped them on a 15-play drive in the first quarter of their Week 7 game, the Steelers defense has allowed 22 points on drives starting in the opponents' territory, have forced 12 three-and-outs and allowed .

Since Cincinnati's 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter of their Week 7 game, the Steelers have allowed 533 yards on 29 drives - roughly 18 yards per drive.

Drives Plays Yards
Cincinnati 9 35 96
Washington 10 57 255
NY Giants 10 48 182
Totals 29 140 533
Average 9.67 46.67 177.67

Those numbers will stack up against anyone's in the league. And at the time the Steelers played these teams, they were, at worst, decent offensive units. The Giants averaged 29.3 points a game, and managed just one offensive touchdown - and that came amid two horrible calls that gave them two first downs on the scoring drive.

Boiled down, if the opponent starts a drive in their own territory, their odds of scoring go down dramatically.

These numbers have played themselves out over the last 11.5 quarters of football, and they've overcome the 20.5 quarters that came before them. A huge factor in this has been the the play of safety Will Allen.

Sometimes it's not about making a team's best even better, it's simply giving the whole team a chance to get in a rhythm. Allen played more on defense than he had in 2009-11 combined. He looked rusty, passive and restrained.

Since then, he's clearly much more comfortable and he's helping Ryan Clark play more of the role typically assumed by injured safety Troy Polamalu.

That is allowing the Steelers to play more cover 2, which, in turn, gives cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis some help outside the numbers.

It's done wonders for the confidence of both players. Taylor committed seven penalties in the team's 2-3 start, and hasn't been flagged since. The passing defense has allowed four plays of over 25 yards, and two touchdowns in the last 11.5 quarters.

Lewis played perhaps his best game as a pro against the Giants, breaking up two passes in coverage, and batting one at the line of scrimmage. Taylor had an interception. Clark had two tackles for losses and scared wide receiver Victor Cruz into two drops after delivering a boom on him in the first half.

The Steelers played some of the best defensive football in the NFL over the last three games, stemming from one drive by the Bengals. Teams have rarely had that kind of success since then, as their defense assumed the top defensive ranking in yards allowed while only surrendering 35 points in three games (seven of the Giants points came from their defense).

And all this without that Troy Polamalu guy. He's expected back in Week 11, right in time for the division-leading Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers' defense isn't being criticized anymore, and it may not have even been at its best yet this year.


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