This is how bad the Steelers’ defense was in the 39-26 home loss Nov. 14 to the New England Patriots: “If our offense had scored a million points, it wouldn’t have mattered,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We would have lost, one million-and-one to one million.”
This is how good the Steelers’ defense was in the 35-3 home win Sunday against the Oakland Raiders: The two teams still could be playing and the Raiders wouldn’t have a touchdown. “Your pride kicks in at some point,” Clark said. “We all have egos. We took it personally all week. It wasn’t because of the bad things people were saying about us. It was because we felt like we let the team down [against New England]. We couldn’t allow that to happen again.”
And so they didn’t.
The performance by the Steelers’ defense was especially significant for two reasons:
1) It ended, at least for now, the comparisons to last season when the defense’s futility was huge in the team’s five-game losing streak after a 6-2 start. A loss Sunday would have made it two in a row after the 6-2 start this season. “I thought our defense came out of the locker room ready to play,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
And 2) It came against maybe the NFL’s hottest offense. The Raiders came in after averaging 38 points and 458 yards in consecutive wins against Denver, Seattle and Kansas City. Their running game was second best in the league, averaging 162 yards per game. Running back Darren McFadden was best in the league, averaging 108 yards.
On this day, McFadden had nowhere to run. It didn’t matter that the Steelers were playing without defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. McFadden finished with an almost-unbelievable 14 yards on 10 carries. As a team, the Raiders had 61 rushing yards, 24 coming on a run by backup Michael Bush late in the third quarter. That was the first run of 20-plus yards that the Steelers allowed this season, making them the last team to give one up. The Raiders finished with 182 total yards, the fewest, by far, that the Steelers have allowed this season.
“We knew they were going to try to run the ball,” Clark said. “They weren’t going to be tricky. They were just going to try to run downhill. As a defense, we enjoy that. We’re built for that. Teams that want to come in and outphysical the Steelers, how many are able to do that well?”
The Raiders had a big problem when they couldn’t do it. The other part of their offensive game is the deep pass. “When you can’t block 51, 56, 92 and Lawrence” — that would be linebackers James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons — “you can’t throw the ball downfield,” Clark said. “The pressure our guys got was unbelievable.”
The Steelers sacked quarterback Jason Campbell four times and drove him out of the game, then got to backup Bruce Gradkowski twice. Harrison had two of the sacks and generally was a monster with two tackles for losses, two quarterback hurries, an interception, a pass defense and a force fumble. Farrior, who played another strong game with seven solo tackles, had a sack as did Woodley, cornerback Bryant McFadden and linebacker Jason Worilds.
“[Defensive coordinator Dick] LeBeau called a lot more blitzes,” Harrison said.
“Coach LeBeau called a great game,” Clark added.
The Raiders’ longest pass was for 17 yards to wide receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins. They converted just three of 14 third-down situations and made it into Steelers territory twice. Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu had interceptions. Cornerback Ike Taylor forced a fumble that Timmons recovered.
But it wasn’t just Taylor and Polamalu who played well in the secondary. Bryant McFadden had a solid game. And get this: So did nickel back William Gay, who was picked on by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, then absolutely trashed by the fans and media. On consecutive plays midway through the first quarter, he strung out Darren McFadden on an end sweep enabling Polamalu to make the tackle for a 5-yard loss, then blitzed and batted down a Campbell pass at the line of scrimmage.
“I was proud of him, how he came to work this week,” Clark said. “Here in Pittsburgh, you can’t have a bad game. But it wasn’t just him. We all didn’t play well last week. He came back and played a lot better today and had a lot tighter coverage. And he did it against receivers. He wasn’t guarding the tight end like last week.”
It’s funny how it works in the NFL. When you play poorly, you hear about it from the coach. Tomlin made the Steelers practice in pads on a Wednesday last week for the first time since who knows when. But when you kick a little fanny, you get rewarded. Tomlin gave the team the day off today. It’s the first Monday they’ve had off this season.