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Is the Proof Really in the Pudding With This Year's Steelers' Defense?

By most every conceivable team statistical category, the Pittsburgh Steelers 2007 defense should be considered outstanding. The Steelers yield the fewest yards per game (258 yards), the 3rd fewest passing yards (174.6), the 3rd fewest rushing yards (83.4), and are tied for the fewest points allowed per game (15.6). Sounds pretty dominating, no?

Well the numbers aren't fictitious. The Steelers have posted those impressive numbers through 14 games, but they don't tell the entire story, and they certainly don't ensure guaranteed success this next two games and in the playoffs, assuming we get there. For one, we have injury issues at critical run-stopping positions, and our secondary is playing more like the secondary we've been wearily accostumed to the past several years.

With regards to the numbers themselves, well, the sample size is sufficiently big, and the results look pretty on paper, but they've been bolstered by a number of fortunate variables: we caught Cleveland and Buffalo in weeks 1 and 2 before they gelled offensively, the Seahawks were missing all their major offensive weapons, Balitmore could muster nothing in the rainy conidtions at Heinz, nor could Miami on the Steelers' sloppy track in weeks 12. We did, however, make the Broncos look outstanding, the Jets more efficient than they have the rest of the year, and we all know what has happened the past two weeks against New England and Jacksonville.

In case you forgot though, here are the numbers from the past two games:

Total Yards: 421 vs. NE, 421 vs. Jacksonville; 34 points vs. NE, 29 point vs. Jacksonville.

That's roughly 50% more yardage allowed per game, and between 90-120% more pts allowed per game. To make matters worse, we can't pinpoint the problem on any one specific area: against the Pats it was the pass; against Jacksonville it was the run. Against the Jets it was the run defense against Thomas Jones for much of the game, and the pass defense against Kellon Clemens late.

Although the pass defense has posted solid numbers on several occasions this year (Seattle, 2nd Cincy game, Miami to name a few) it can not be attributed to a magical upgrade in personnel. Deshea is still Deshea: reliable and respectable, but not physically imposing or a game-changer. B-Mac is the same way: intelligent and capable, but not a player you need not be concerned about when he goes up against the league's best offenses. As for the run defense? Well, it's a bit mystifying, but the reality is with no Aaron Smith, we're not nearly the same, because if there's one thing we've learned the past two years, it's that this LB corps is a group of veteran, professional, hard-working athletes, but is nevertheless not of the same mold of Steelers units of yesteryear.

There are no dominating individual forces outside of James Harrison, and even he has had a hard time leaving his mark on a game since we played Baltimore on Monday Night Football. There are no Bells, Gildons, Lloyds, Kirklands, or Greenes in this group. Hagans, Foote, and Farrior are all to be admired for their durability and veteran presence, but really they're not upper-echelon linebackers when Big Snack and Aaron Smith aren't devouring blockers in front of them. When you consider the continuing evolution of the NFL game towards being more pass oriented, you're forced to realize this group may not be the best collection to be able to both stop the run and play in pass defense. Woodley and Timmons were certainly drafted with that thought in mind, but for now, while they get their feet wet, we're stuck with a group that is struggling at the absolute most inopportune time.

Thursday Night's game against the Rams will be no joke. They're eager to play. Bulger has missed time, as has Steven Jackson. The game provides them one of their final two opportunities to do something positive to wind up what has been a disappointing season for the Rams, no matter how many injuries they've been devestated by. You better believe Jackson is salivating at the opportunity to go off like Fred Taylor and Jones-Drew did against us this Sunday. And with Ike Taylor perhaps out of comission, Deshea and the rest of the secondary will be tested by the cagey Holt and Bruce. Color me officially concerned until I see us (hopefully) come out and throw the first punch on Thursday night with our defense. I haven't seen it since before the second Bengals game. If you want to count the Dolphins game, fine, but you shouldn't, and our early-game struggles go all the way back to the Nov. 5 contest against the Ravens. Since then we let Cleveland take charge early; ditto against the Jets; the Bengals marched down the field on their opening drive; and as I said before, no need to rehash what happend against NE and JAX.

Here's the one caveat: Clark Haggans' injury will force LaMarr Woodley into the mix this Thursday; same goes for Ryan McBean as well due to the Smith injury. Not crossing my fingers on the latter, but you never know, he may provide a spark in the pass-rush department that we've been sorely missing for awhile now. As for Woodley? Who knows, but it's worth getting excited about. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a great run for him as a Steeler. And if he is able to get some pressure on the QB, defend in passing situations, and provide a desperately needed spark for this defensive unit, perhaps we'll get our swagger back on that side of the ball just in time for the Tournament. Likely? We'll see, stranger things have happened no doubt. Probably not considering how great the Colts and Pats, and even SD at times, are on offense. But don't forget about Indy last year. Their defense was downright atrocious heading into the playoffs. As in like borderline historically awful against the run. All they did was play perfectly in the playoffs, outside of the early moments of the AFC Championship Game against the Pats.

I thought the offensive line could play better even when things looked as grim as ever in November. The play of the line has been better. We've run better, Colon's been better the past several games, and remarkably, Kendall Simmons has been worth that fat extension he received for a few games now. Bad break for us that Marvel Smith was injured and had perhaps his worst game as a professional. That's not to say the line is not our biggest area of concern this offseason. It is, I just don't think it's been the primary reason for our downturn since the Jets game.

The defense has been, and we better get things back on track this week against St. Louis. I would hate for our playoff lives to come down to week 17 at Baltimore, no matter how poorly the Ravens are playing. But beyond that, this Steelers fan, for one, is tired of seeing us be soft against the run. Never have liked it, and so long as I root for this team, I never will. Next chance at getting back to our old ways against thes run comes Thursday night against one of the league's very best in Steven Jackson. And if he gets going, the Rams are still one of the more dangerous aerial teams in the league.

Let's get it done defense. Dominate like the numbers suggest you should dominate.

Go Steelers!