Back in the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense was badass. In 1976, for example, the Steelers started off the season 1-4 and lost Terry Bradshaw to injury. The defense then stepped up, pulling off three consecutive shutouts. The Steelers’ defense didn’t allow a single point in five of their last nine games that year, and only one opponent (Houston) was able to score in the double digits (a 32-16 Steelers win). Eight of the Steelers’ defensive players were chosen for the Pro Bowl that year, and four of those would go to to enter the Hall of Fame. All in all, the Steelers defense of the day was so badass that they earned a legendary nickname: the Steel Curtain.
Since the 70s, the Steelers have generally had pretty good defensive teams. After all, a good running game and a bruising defense is “the Pittsburgh way”. It’s “smashmouth football”, and no one has consistently done that better than the Steelers. But this season’s Steeler defense is different. It’s like the defense of years past, but it’s “clicking” on every level. Consider the statistics:
– The Steelers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.
– The Steelers have not allowed 300 yards in offense all season.
– The Steelers have given up ten (or fewer) points in four of their last five games.
– The Steelers defense has allowed nine total points in third quarters this season.
– James Harrison and Lamar Woodley have already combined for 25 1/2 sacks between them this year, a team record.
– Troy Polamalu has had interceptions in three consecutive games, and leads the league with six total picks.
– Overall, the Steelers defense is giving up the fewest yards rushing, passing and overall, and the fewest points in the NFL.
– The Steelers are giving up an average of 238 yards per game, easily the lowest in the NFL.
All this was on full display last Sunday when the Steelers traveled to Foxboro, where they had previously been 0-2 in Gillette Stadium. Patriots QB Matt Cassel was riding high on back-to-back 400-yard passing games. Darth Vader was looking like a genius (again) for his pick at backup QB.
So what happened? The Pats managed only 169 offensive yards. Cassel threw two picks and fumbled twice. The Pats went 1-13 on third downs. Had Large Benjamin not thrown that interception deep in his own territory at the beginning of the game (which gave the Pats the ball at Pittsburgh’s 14 yard line), it’s possible that the Pats might not have gotten into the end zone at all.
The 1976 Steelers – the epitome of “Steel Curtain” – led the league in giving up the fewest points, yards rushing and total yards. As good as they were, however, they only managed to be #3 in yards passing. The 2008 Steelers – the “New Steel Curtain” – is leading in all defensive categories, something that hasn’t been done since at least 1991, when the Eagles led the league in the three yardage categories (but did not give up the fewest points).
I’ll admit that the Steelers’ offense is struggling. Just as the Bears had “Good Rex” and “Bad Rex”, I’m never sure if “Good Ben” or “Bad Ben” will show up. I’ve watched many games on the edge of my seat this year, hoping and praying that the offense will get the job done. But after the game’s over I take a deep breath… and remember what the defense has done. The Steelers’ defense destroyed the Redskins, Chargers and Bungles.
Let’s hope they can keep it up against Dallas!