Steelers have NFL's best defense

September, 23, 2010
9/23/10
2:10
PM ET
Mike Tomlin didn't understand the criticism before the season. With the Pittsburgh Steelers without Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season, football experts were writing off his team when all along he knew he had an elite defense to lean on.

Two wins later, everyone else (including the AFC North blog) is starting to come around.

"We're a little bit annoyed [about] the premature reporting of our death," Tomlin told reporters Sunday after pounding the Tennessee Titans 19-11. "We're pleased that we're 2-0, but we're not astounded by it. We expect to win."

As they head into Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0), the Steelers are proving their defense can carry the load while they await the return of Roethlisberger, who must sit two more games for violating the league's personal conduct policy.

What have we learned from Pittsburgh's fast start? According to Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson, the Steelers have the NFL's best defense.

Aaron Smith
Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireA healthy Aaron Smith has paid dividends for Pittsburgh.
"I don't even know who's No. 2," Williamson said. "I think the Steelers are far and away the best defense in the league right now."

The AFC North blog agrees, and here are seven reasons:

1. Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith are back

Skinny: Over the years, the Steelers' defense hasn't been the same when Polamalu and/or Smith are out of the lineup. Polamalu missed 12 games with a knee injury in 2009 and Smith missed 11 games with a torn rotator cuff. Both players are healthy and playing well.

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson: "They are both Pro Bowl players. Smith is about the best 3-4 defensive end I can remember, and he's been playing great. Smith is the prototype for Pittsburgh's defense. He is so fundamentally sound, so powerful and such a good run-stopper that he demands a lot of double-teams. It's easy to overlook what he brings, but it will be foolish to overlook it. Troy Polamalu is the wild card. He's Dick LeBeau's favorite little gadget to play with. When he's not there, the Steelers take half of the playbook and throw it away. With him, they can expand it like no other defense in the league."

2. Steelers force turnovers

Skinny: Pittsburgh is sixth in the league in yards allowed and leads the league in turnovers with eight. Many good defenses get stops, but no team creates havoc like the Steelers. Last week, Pittsburgh had four fumbles and three interceptions and held Chris Johnson to 34 yards rushing. The outstanding play of the defense stands in contrast to the poor play of the offense, which ranks 31st.

Scouts Inc.: "The Steelers stress run defense so much that they make teams one-dimensional very, very quickly. It seems like Chris Johnson was just going through the motions in the second half, and the same with Atlanta's Michael Turner in Week 1. Opponents realize they're beating their heads into the ground, then LeBeau starts dialing up blitzes when he knows you have to throw. That's when it gets ugly. That's when the quarterback takes a lot of hits and turnovers happen."

3. LeBeau is the NFL's best defensive coordinator

Skinny: LeBeau was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year as a defensive back for the Detroit Lions. But his overall contribution to the NFL as a player and coach will be his lasting legacy. LeBeau's invention of the zone blitz -- see Ron Jaworski's book excerpt here -- has revolutionized the way teams play defense. Although other teams now use zone-blitz principles, no team does it better than Pittsburgh.

[+] EnlargeDick LeBeau
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesDick LeBeau is the mastermind behind the Pittsburgh Steelers' zone-blitz scheme.
Scouts Inc.: "The consistency year after year is just amazing. [Pittsburgh's defense ranked No. 5, No. 1, No. 1, No. 9 and No. 4 the past five years.] LeBeau obviously has good players. But they play very hard for him and he maximizes all of their abilities. As a coaching staff, I think they're exceptional at bringing players in to fit the scheme."

4. Championship experience

Skinny: The Steelers have an older defense with a lot of experience. Every defensive starter in Pittsburgh has a Super Bowl ring. Several -- such as Polamalu, Smith, Casey Hampton, James Farrior and Brett Keisel -- have two rings. This creates confidence when the big moment arrives.

Scouts Inc.: "I think it's huge. There are people who will say the opposite, and detractors will say they're too old. They are one of the older defenses around, but it's kind of a generational thing. There's a new generation of Steeler defenders growing up right now --- Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Ziggy Hood -- guys that have only been in the league a few years. I think experience goes a long way if you have depth."

5. Best OLB combination in the NFL

Skinny: A few teams have a Pro Bowl outside linebacker. But the Steelers have two: James Harrison and Woodley. That makes it incredibly difficult for opponents. They have combined for five sacks in two games. Harrison (three sacks) and Woodley (two sacks) also are great at setting the edge against the run, which is why you rarely see running backs get huge gains outside against Pittsburgh.

Scouts Inc.: "The Steelers recognize that the defense doesn't work without great outside linebackers. The most important components are a stud, run-stuffing nose tackle and pressure off the edge. The defensive line is not going to rush the passer; that's not their job. So those edge rushers have to be special, and year after year in Pittsburgh they are."

6. Emergence of linebacker Lawrence Timmons

Skinny: Timmons waited two years to get significant playing time in Pittsburgh. Then, in his third season, he had his ups and downs as a full-time starter. But Timmons is coming into his own in 2010, leading the Steelers with 26 tackles in two games.

Scouts Inc.: "He's a rare, physical specimen. Timmons is the prototype run-and-hit linebacker. Honestly, I think he's more like Derrick Brooks than a 3-4 inside linebacker. Timmons is explosive and has size, strength and speed. He changes directions well and has everything you want physically. I've been saying all offseason that this guy is ready for the huge breakout season. Timmons was only a one-year starter at Florida State. He was behind Ernie Sims and didn't play very much when he came out as a junior. He's still very young and maturing physically. But now he's becoming LeBeau's second-level Troy Polamalu. LeBeau can do anything with him, whether it's spy on Vince Young, blitz like crazy. He's great in pursuit."

7. Quality depth

Skinny: Linebacker Larry Foote, a starter for Pittsburgh's championship team in 2005, is now a backup. Without Hampton last week, backup nose tackle Chris Hoke helped the Steelers contain Johnson. Pittsburgh also has Hood, a 2009 first-round draft pick, rotating snaps on the defensive line.

Scouts Inc.: "You can't just play Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel every snap of the season and expect them to be real productive in the playoffs. You have to rotate guys in and have that depth. The interesting thing is injuries will happen. So teams have more depth now than they will a month from now or two months from now. But it is very important."

Final words

There are other great defenses -- the Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New York Jets belong in that category. But no team has all the ingredients Pittsburgh's defense has.

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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