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Bye Week Flashback: Best Steelers defensive days?

What are the best single games for Steelers defenders?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This past Sunday night, T.J. Watt didn’t just win Defensive Player of the Week honors, or even save the Steelers season. He played one of the more dominant defensive days I think I’ve ever seen.

T.J. Watt

PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FF
PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FF
3 2 7 6 1 3 2 1

For context, in case you’ve forgotten, both sacks and the game-sealing forced fumble all came in overtime. As they say, the best rise up in when they’re needed most.

That said, Watt was borderline unblockable all day. When he wasn’t getting home for the sack, he was still in the backfield — all three of those defensed passes happened on pass rushes. If there was any doubt about game’s best defender, Watt made his case Sunday night.

So this week, I’ve been thinking about the finest single games I’ve ever personally watched from Steelers defenders. And I thought I’d list a few below.

Note: this is entirely subjective — it’s based on my own memories. I looked up stats to make sure I remembered right, but I didn’t include any games that I didn’t watch (because I wouldn’t know how impressive the day actually was in real-time). That means you won’t see the 70s greats. I was also surprised that I couldn’t come up with any truly dominant single games from Rod Woodson. Or Greg Lloyd. There’s no Ryan Clark either, or Ike Taylor, Stephon Tuitt, Kevin Greene, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Lawrence Timmons, or Kendrell Bell. I mention this because I welcome anyone who remembers a single day from any of these guys (or Joe Green and co). Tell some stories in the comments.

I’m putting T.J.’s Seattle performance in my top 5; below are the rest, plus a few honorable mentions. See you in the comments.


James Harrison

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers
Just give James the ball, man. He’s going to take it away anyway.

The finest single game I’ve ever seen a player produce, on offense or defense, and on any team.

Steelers – 35
Ravens – 7

2007, Week 8

INT yds PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FF FRec
INT yds PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FF FRec
1 20 1 3.5 10 9 1 3 6 3 1

Look at that stat line. These are respectable numbers for a lot of players for an entire season.

This was the first time the Steelers and Ravens had played since Baltimore swept the previous year’s series by a count of 58-7. It was the day the Steelers 75th anniversary team was honored. Oh, and it was also Harrison’s first ever start against Baltimore, and Mike Tomlin’s first matchup against them.

Pittsburgh flattened the Ravens on all fronts (Big Ben threw five touchdowns in the first half, for example), but no one was as dominant as Deebo. Anyone who was surprised by the way Harrison stomped the league in his 2008 DPOY campaign, simply wasn’t watching this game.


Joey Porter

Raiders v Steelers
At least one Steeler showed up this day...
Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Joey Porter takes on the eventual AFC champs all by himself, and makes a game of it.

Steelers – 17
Raiders – 30

2002, Week 2

INT yds TD PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL
INT yds TD PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL
2 114 0 2 3 12 11 1 3

This was the only game I could find in NFL history in which a player recorded 3.0 sacks and two interceptions in the same contest. That Joey managed 114 return yards on those picks, recorded 12 tackles (a ridiculous 11 solo), and three tackles for loss, are just icing on the cake. Joey tried to take on an entire conference champion by himself, and put on a decent show.

The Steelers got blown off the field this day as Rich Gannon threw for 403 yards and ex-Steeler Rod Woodson recovered three fumbles. But Peezy was all over the field.

This is the only game on this list that the Steelers didn’t win. That’s how good Porter was that day.


Troy Polamalu

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Tennessee Titans
Dude, look at this. Seriously. It’s not even his dominant hand.

In the first quarter of the season, Troy Polamalu puts on the most impressive show of his career.

Steelers – 13
Titans – 10

2009, Week 1

INT yds PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL
INT yds PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL
1 16 2 6 6 0 1

This may not be a game that pops for most of you, when you think of great Polamalu games. But it’s the most impressive I know. Importantly, Troy was injured late in the second quarter, so he played less than two quarters of football. That makes the numbers here more impressive, but it’s not the key. The key is two first-quarter plays that no other player, perhaps ever, could have made.

The first was a tackle on the Titans Chris Johnson – who would rush for 2,006 yards that year, and was one of the fastest players of the era. Johnson (who’d obnoxiously nicknamed himself “Every Coach’s Dream” that offseason) made three touchdown runs of 85 yards or longer that season. If he had space, he could have gone for 90. Then this happened:

A few minutes later, Kerry Collins threw deep to 1st round pick, Kenny Britt, who had 5” on Polamalu. That never mattered with Troy:

Polamalu would be DPOY the next season, on the way to the Super Bowl in 2010, but he was making his case already in week 1 of 2009.


Ryan Shazier

Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals
Did Ryan Shazier have longer arms than usual? It always looked that way to me.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ryan Shazier is more powerful than Vontaze Burfict.

Steelers – 18
Bengals – 16

2015 AFC Wild Card Game

PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FF FR
PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FF FR
2 13 9 4 2 1 2 1

This game is remembered for many reasons — mostly having to do with Vontaze Burfict’s criminal assaults on Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, or for he and Adam Jones coming unglued in the final seconds. But none of it would matter if Shazier wasn’t a superhero.

Quick recap: the Steelers had dominated Cincinnati all day, and led 15-0 until Burfict drove his weight into Ben’s shoulder, sending Landry Jones into the lineup in the 4th quarter. 13 minutes later, the Bengals had taken a 16-15 lead, and Jones threw over the middle, right to (of all people) Burfict. There was 1:23 left, and Cincinnati was now sitting at the Steelers’ 26; all they needed to do was run out the clock and hold onto the ball. And on the first play from scrimmage, this happened:

Easy to forget Shazier’s 13 tackles, and his devastating hit on Giovanni Bernard, causing a fumble he recovered and brought back for a touchdown (erroneously whistled dead). Shazier was becoming the next generation’s Polamalu. I’m glad he’s recovered enough to live a normal life, but man, I wish he was still a Steeler on the field.


Two multi-game sequences that don’t really qualify but I have to include:

Minkah Fitzpatrick

NFL: NOV 03 Colts at Steelers
96 yards to the house. I still can’t believe these guys nearly made the playoffs.
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Minkah Fitzpatrick shows us all why he was worth a first round draft pick.

Steelers – 27 / Dolphins – 14
Steelers – 26 / Colts – 24
Steelers – 17 / Rams – 12

2019, Weeks 6-8

Opponent INT yds TD PD Tckl Solo Ast FR FY Ftd
Opponent INT yds TD PD Tckl Solo Ast FR FY Ftd
Miami 2 6 0 2 2 1 1 0 0 0
Indianapolis 1 96 1 1 7 4 3 0 0 0
L.A. Rams 1 14 0 2 4 3 1 1 43 1

Coming out of the Steelers bye week, Minkah absolutely exploded. Five takeaways for 159 return yards and two touchdowns in three weeks, with both scores providing game-winning scores. Goodness. The team entered this stretch at 2-4, then emerged above .500. Somewhere in here, the entire world stopped snickering that Mike Tomlin made a dumb move trading away the Steelers 2020 first round draft pick.


LaMarr Woodley

New England Patriots Vs. Pittsburgh Steelers At Heinz Field
Oh man, that’s gonne hurt in about .5 seconds, when Woodley comes down.
Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Lamarr Woodley lives in backfields for a quarter-season.

Steelers – 38 / Titans – 17
Steelers – 17 / Jaguars – 13
Steelers – 32 / Cardinals – 20
Steelers – 25 / Patriots – 17

2011, Weeks 8-11

Opponent INT yds PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH *SFTY
Opponent INT yds PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH *SFTY
Tennessee 1 1 1 1.5 3 1 2 1 2 0
Jacksonville 0 0 0 2 8 4 4 3 2 0
Arizona 0 0 0 2 7 6 1 2 2 1
New England 0 0 0 2 2 2 0 2 3 0

Woodley was on his way to an All Pro season in 2011, before injuring his hamstring against New England. 7.5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 9 QB hits, an interception, and a safety – in FOUR WEEKS. For anyone wondering why the Steelers broke the bank for Woodley back in the day, this was his potential. It’s a crime that he couldn’t stay healthy. He should’ve been a star for years.


A Bunch of Honorable Mentions:

Devin Bush

Pittsburgh Steelers v Los Angeles Chargers
Lots of people are down on Bush, but he’s able to be a star. Give him a little time.
Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

Rookie takes over in first half.

Steelers – 24
Chargers – 17

2019, Week 6

INT yds PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL FR FY Ftd
INT yds PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL FR FY Ftd
1 6 1 7 4 3 1 1 9 1

Another one-quarter explosion. In this game, the Steelers were sitting at 1-4 and coming off of a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Ravens. On a rough west coast trip, and on national TV, they needed their defense to rise up early to lower the pressure on first-time starter Duck Hodges. In the first quarter, Bush recorded three tackles, a fumble recovery (returned for a touchdown), and an interception (which led to another Steelers touchdown), as Pittsburgh scored 14 on the way to a 24-0 lead.

Bush played hurt in the second half and faded a little, but with the season on the brink, in a game that needed to start hot, he owned the first half.


Robert Spillane

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens
It’s no aberration that Spillane is currently the Steelers’ dime-backer.
Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

A backup/nobody ambushes the “powerful” Ravens.

Steelers – 28
Ravens – 24

2020, Week 8

INT yds TD PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL FR
INT yds TD PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL FR
1 33 1 2 11 10 1 1 1

The previous week, Spillane made the highlight reels during his first ever start, for his sledge-hammer hit on Tennessee’s Derrick Henry. Against Baltimore, he came to play.

On the third play from scrimmage, he stepped in front of a Lamarr Jackson duck and brought it 33 yards to the house. That’s pretty awesome already, but he finished with 11 tackles (10 solo, 1 for a loss), two passes defensed, and a fumble recovery at the two-minute warning that seemed to seal the game (before the offense punted back, and Minkah Fitzpatrick had to put the dagger in John Harbaugh’s heart).


James Farrior

Pittsburgh Steelers v Dallas Cowboys
Farrior looks like he’s trying to take that ball away with his face.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Potsy gets the assist on Big Ben’s first 4th quarter comeback.

Steelers – 24
Cowboys – 20

2004, Week 4

SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL FF
SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL FF
2 6 6 0 1 3

Highlights: Forced three fumbles, including the one that set up the game winning touchdown. This was Big Ben’s first game-winning drive, but it was made possible by James Farrior.


Bud Dupree

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills
This was the Bud Dupree that was just under the surface all along.
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Bud shows a flash of who he could be.

Steelers – 27
Bills – 20

2016, Week 14

SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH
SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH
2.5 6 5 1 3 3

Dupree missed nine games 2016, in what should have been his season-two leap. When he came off IR, the team eased him back onto the field. In his first start. he mauled Buffalo. 2.5 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, and 3 QB hits is a pretty good return to action. He’d lead the NFL for the month of December, with 4.5 sacks.


Joe Haden

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers
If LeVeon Bell had reported this season, these guys would have been a legit title contender.
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Joe Haden out-duels Brady, Gronkowski, and Edelman.

Steelers – 17
Patriots – 10

2018, Week 15

INT yds PD Tckl Solo Ast
INT yds PD Tckl Solo Ast
1 0 2 12 8 4

The biggest moment: making the game-sealing interception of Tom Brady (on a pass thrown between Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman) to thwart a Pats comeback and end a Steelers three game losing streak. That’s the play everyone remembers from that game, but Haden also made 12 tackles downfield as the Steelers held the eventual champions to 10 points. Joe has always been underrated, in my opinion.


Cam Heyward

NFL: NOV 03 Colts at Steelers
Do you see it? Behind Watt? That’s Cam Heyward freight-training an All Pro guard.
Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cam tosses All Pros all over the field.

Steelers – 26
Colts – 24

2019, Week 6

Tckl Solo Ast QBH
Tckl Solo Ast QBH
6 4 2 1

Cam never seems to make the big stats, but you know what you’re seeing when he’s in there. I remember this game because he so bullied Quentin Nelson, the Colts All Pro guard, that Nelson found himself tossed backward in the second quarter, right into his quarterback, Jacoby Brissett. This was so violent that Brissett got injured and had to leave the game. Cam Heyward is THAT strong.


James Harrison

Two forced fumbles and the best trash talk I’ve ever heard.

Steelers – 33
Patriots – 10

2008, Week 9

SCK Tckl Solo Ast QBH FF
SCK Tckl Solo Ast QBH FF
2.0 10 7 3 1 2

Highlight: Harrison making eye contact with QB Matt Cassel over the line and saying, “Hey 10, I’m coming for you and there’s nothing he [pointing to LT] can do about it.” Harrison then proceeded to make his second strip sack of the day. Ridiculous.


James Harrison

James says, if the offense can’t get points, defense will.

Steelers – 11
Chargers – 10

2008, Week 6

INT yds PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL FF SFTY
INT yds PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL FF SFTY
1 33 1 1.0 4 2 2 1 1 1

Highlight: After the offense failed on a 4th and goal dive in a tight game against a playoff-bound Chargers team, Harrison immediately bull-rushed his way right through San Diego’s line and strip-sacked Philip Rivers for a safety. It’s the play we always say we want when the opponent is pinned deep, but never happens. And it was the game-winning points.


T.J. Watt

No rust in a big-time upset.

Steelers – 23
Bills – 16

2021, Week 1

SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FF
SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FF
2.0 3 3 0 1 5 1

Highlight: Watt was all over the field, like always, but this shook the tree because he’d sat out the entire preseason, and just signed the biggest contract for a defensive player in NFL history. The odds that he’d underperform were decent, given the pressure, lack of prep, and the powerful opponent. Not T.J.


Troy Polamalu

He could have had six sacks if they’d have kept blitzing him.

Steelers – 27
Texans – 7

2005, Week 2

PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL
PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL
1 3.0 6 6 0 3

Highlight: Did you see the stats? 3.0 sacks for a defensive back is a ridiculous number. David Carr still wakes up in a cold sweat, wondering if the shadows on his wall are actually billowing black hair…


Joey Porter

Joey eats Tom Brady’s lunch, as the Steelers end the 21 game winning streak.

Steelers – 34
Patriots – 20

2004, Week 6

PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL FF
PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL FF
1 3.0 8 5 3 2 2

Highlight: This was the game where the Steelers ended the Pats’ record win streak, and ended it in style. The whole defense ought to get commended (Deshea Townshend’s pick-6 off Tom Brady, just before halftime, is a thing of beauty), but Peezy’s 3.0 sacks and 8 tackles paced the team. Beautiful day.


Troy Polamalu

The interception to end all interceptions.

Steelers – 11
Chargers – 10

2008, Week 6

INT yds PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL
INT yds PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL
1 4 1 3 3 0 1

Highlight: Yup, that game again. Troy nearly scored a touchdown on a crazy game-ending play (later called back). But this is really just here for one of the most iconic interceptions in NFL history. You know the one I’m talking about.


Joey Porter

Joey owns the “Paper Champions” game.

Steelers – 17
Buccaneers – 10

2002, Week 11

PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL
PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL
1 4.0 6 6 0 4

Highlight: This was the game where Steelers SS Lee Flowers had called the Bucc’s “Paper Champions,” and said the Steelers were the real defense. And then Joey and company went out and proved it. Classic. 4.0 sacks on a day like that is raising your game.


T.J. Watt

T.J. saves the Steelers dignity, pretty much by himself.

Steelers – 21
Browns – 21

2018, Week 1

SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FG Blk
SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL QBH FG Blk
3.0 10 7 3 4 3 1

Highlight: Ben Roethlisberger was uncharacteristically terrible against a Cleveland team that hadn’t won a game in almost two years. Le’Veon Bell hadn’t shown up, and James Conner (who had a very good game) fumbled late, and then never really got his mojo back. Watt single-handedly kept the Steelers in this game. And preserved their dignity.


James Farrior

Jerome Bettis told Farrior, “You’re playing out of your body today.” Yup.

Steelers – 27
Eagles – 3

2004, Week 7

INT yds PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL
INT yds PD SCK Tckl Solo Ast TFL
1 41 1 1.0 5 4 1 3

Highlight: The Steelers beat their second undefeated team in a row (the latest into a season that any one team had done so), and knocked off, in successive weeks, the two eventual Super Bowl participants. And they did it in convincing fashion. Fun fact: James Farrior was runner-up in 2004 for Defensive Player of the Year.


Troy Polamalu

Troy sends the Steelers to the Super Bowl.

Steelers – 23
Ravens – 14

2008 AFC Championship Game

INT yds TD PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL
INT yds TD PD Tckl Solo Ast TFL
1 40 1 2 4 3 1 1

Highlights: The game winning pick-6 is what everyone remembers, but the leap over the line to stifle Joe Flacco’s 4th down sneak attempt is the moment that NO ONE who’s ever played the game could replicate.

Lots of you are mad at me for not putting this in 1st place on Troy’s history. I’m not sorry. I maintain: that Titans was otherworldly.


James Harrison

Silverback makes the greatest play in Super Bowl history (no matter what NFL Network says).

Steelers – 27
Cardinals – 23

Provided without commentary.

Go Steelers.