Bend but don't break. That's the formula the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has used to become one of the top units in the league six weeks into the NFL season. It was the formula they applied against the Arizona Cardinals at Heinz Field last Sunday, limiting one of the league's top offenses to just 13 points.
Through six weeks, the Steelers defense ranks 23rd in net yards allowed per game (376.5), and fifth in points allowed per game (18.0). On Sunday, they surrendered 469 yards, but managed to keep a Cardinals team averaging 38.0 points per game out of the end zone through the final three quarters.
How have they done it?
By playing stout against the run, getting after the quarterback, and forcing turnovers. Keith Butler's unit ranks 7th against the run (93.3 YPG), and has forced multiple turnovers in three straight games.
Let's take a closer look at three key defensive plays made by the Steelers in the 25-13 over the Cardinals last Sunday.
In the first play, the Cardinals offense faces a 1st and 10 from its own 40-yard line with 5:18 remaining in the first quarter. The Steelers defense comes out in a base 3-4 front, with Vince Williams filling in for injured Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker. The Cardinals offense shows an unbalanced look, with two tight ends in a three-point stance on the left side of the formation.
Williams is responsible for the shallow middle zone, and glues himself to tight end Jermaine Gresham. Butler and head coach Mike Tomlin prefer to use Williams, rather than Sean Spence, in the nickel defense and obvious passing downs, due to his superior coverage skills, which are on display here.
Williams knocks Carson Palmer's pass away from Greisham, and the ball is snatched out of the air by fellow Florida State alumni Lawrence Timmons. The interception was the tenth of Timmons' illustrious career.
This play was the definition of teamwork, and allowed Pittsburgh to pin Arizona on its own two-yard line on its ensuing offensive possession.
Leading 7-0, the Cardinals offense faces a 2nd and 2 from the Steelers 48-yard line on the opening play of the second quarter. Arizona shows an unbalanced look with two tight ends on the right side of the line, while Pittsburgh shows an overload blitz from the weak side of the formation.
At the snap, left guard Mike Iupati pulls to the right to open up a lane for running back Chris Johnson, but left tackle Jared Veldheer whiffs on an attempted chop block of defensive end Cameron Heyward. Heyward knifes through the hole left by the pulling guard, and tackles Johnson for a three-yard loss. Arizona fails to convert on the ensuing third down and is forced to punt.
The Steelers limited the Cardinals to 55 yards rushing on 20 attempts (2.8 AVG), and Heyward was instrumental in that effort. The fifth-year pro is having another dominant season, and recorded two tackles-for-loss against Arizona. He has five tackles-for-loss on the season.
Trailing 12-10 with 6:50 remaining in the third quarter, the Cardinals offense faces a 3rd and 18 from its own 32-yard line. The Steelers defense only rushes four, as both inside linebackers drop into coverage at the snap.
Right outside linebacker James Harrison treats the 321-pound left tackle like a blocking sled, driving him backward into Palmer's lap. Palmer attempts to elude the rush by side-stepping to his left, but he can't escape Harrison, who sacks him for a seven-yard loss.
Harrison's sack was Pittsburgh's only sack of the game, but it came at a crucial time, and forced Arizona to punt from deep in its own territory.
It was a big day for Harrison. The ageless wonder finished the game with a sack and a momentum-shifting forced fumble.
The Steelers defense has been outstanding at keeping opponents out of the end zone, limiting big plays, and forcing turnovers in 2015. The unit ranks seventh in sacks (17.0) and has forced nine turnovers through six weeks.
The play of the defense has kept the Steelers close in games without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and was the main reason the team was able to pick up critical wins against the Cardinals and San Diego Chargers over the last two weeks.
They'll continue to carry the majority of the weight until Roethlisberger returns, and will look to shut down quarterback Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead in Week 7.