Last Sunday, millions of Steelers fans at Heinz Field and watching at home sat in frozen horror as Le'Veon Bell crumpled to the turf grabbing his injured knee. It was certainly a moment of unbridled terror, as a cloud of confusion and doubt suddenly descended upon a promising, successful season. "What would the Steelers do without their team MVP?" the Pittsburgh faithful shouted to the heavens, searching in vain for answers. Thankfully, Bell's long-term health is in good shape and the Pittsburgh defense has a few things to say about all this talk of a "lost season".
Although they finished as one of the more lowly units in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has stepped up over during the last few weeks. In fact, the transformation of the Steelers defense has been night-and-day this season. Granted, Dick LeBeau's side of the ball isn't quite what it was back in 2008 or 2010, but Pittsburgh has gone from the mindset of "don't mess this up" to "go out there and win the game." Earlier this season, Ben Roethlisberger and his four horsemen of the offensive apocolaypse (Bell, Brown, Bryant, Miller) were relied on to light up the scoreboard and pray the defense could just hang on and not bend too far. Then, midway through the year, the defense began to tune up its act, making key plays in wins against the Colts, Ravens and Texans. Opposing teams were still having their best offensive games of the season and scoring tons of points, but the defense was doing just enough to be a factor and not lose the game. Namely, the Steelers lack of a shutdown defensive back has allowed the team to take gambles, as the ball-hawking Pittsburgh secondary led the league in interceptions returned for touchdowns.
See Brown run all over the Bengals in Pittsburgh's AFC North title-clincing win.
But during the last four weeks, the Pittsburgh defense has been a completely different unit. A forced fumble and recovery by Arthur Moats against the Bengals back in Week 14 allowed the Steelers to win the game, while Williams Gay's pick-6 against the Falcons helped set the tone of the game early. In Weeks 16 and 17, the Pittsburgh defense, for lack of a better word, was dominant. The Steelers held Kansas City without a touchdown in a Week-16, 20-12 Pittsburgh victory, despite the Chiefs making four trips into the red zone. In Week 17, they forced three turnovers and held the prolific A.J. Green without a touchdown as the Steelers won 27-17, capturing the AFC North title.
Getting hot at the right time is often critical to playoff success and it seems as if the Steelers, particularly their defense, are managing to pick up steam at the right time. If Le'Veon Bell is limited or can't go in the Wildcard game or beyond, look for the Steelers defense to pick up the slack.