Steelers’ defense has channeled some of the franchise’s greatness

Updated: November 21, 2017

7:00 AM ET

PITTSBURGH — The four-game suspension of Marcus Gilbert is survivable, in part because of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in regulation all season.

Great Steelers defenses have been defined by keeping points low and quarterbacks on the ground. With 34 sacks and 16.5 points allowed per game, the Steelers rank in the league’s top two in both categories for the first time since 2010.

From 1992 to 2016, the Steelers have ranked first or second in scoring defense on seven occasions. This year’s defense, stocked with high draft picks and completely rebuilt, is poised to become the eighth and is allowing fewer scores than the vaunted 2007 defense of 16.8 points per game.

Those 1970’s, Steel Curtain defenses feel untouchable, routinely keeping offenses in the single digits. But the days of the defense being able to control the pace of the game appear to be back, to the point that Ben Roethlisberger told his offensive players at halftime that the defense shouldn’t have to carry them any longer.

What’s working efficiently is timely playmaking all over, including Ryan Shazier with a team-high three interceptions. But outside linebacker Bud Dupree outlined the most important factor after Thursday’s 40-17 win over Tennessee: “Tuitt and Cam.”

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, playing on contracts worth a combined $120 million, are earning their money with routine interior pressure. Heyward is three sacks shy of becoming the first Steeler since James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in 2010 to hit double digits.

“We can put pressure up the middle and keep it tight on the outside,” Heyward said. “That’s a solid rush for us. It doesn’t allow the quarterback to step all the way up. Even if you’re not getting a sack, you’re getting the pressure and forcing a tackle. We just have to continue to do it.”

After missing half of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, Heyward acknowledges he’s playing like a man making up for lost time.

Vince Wiliams (six sacks) has become the Steelers’ most potent blitzer because, as Dupree says, running backs can’t block him. Twelve different Steelers have at least one sack. The Steelers’ 3-4 attack typically spreads the sack numbers among several different players — hence, the Blitzburgh nickname — but the Steelers’ identity for pressure is clear: Apply pressure with Tuitt and Heyward, keep the edge steady with Dupree and T.J. Watt, blitz with Williams and corner Mike Hilton, then let Shazier fly around the field.

If the Steelers’ pass defense has its way, more interceptions will result in more family photos in the end zone — even if the Saints started the trend.

“This is probably, by far, the best secondary I’ve ever been a part of,” sixth-year cornerback Coty Sensabaugh said. “We’re very talented. We can play man, we’ve got guys that can blitz, we can do it all. We just have to keep working and keep trusting the process, go as far as this road will take us.”

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