Not only were the Pittsburgh Steelers without two former NFL Defensive Players of the Year, they were without two players who have defined their defense. The reason why Pittsburgh avoided an 0-2 start is the Steelers didn't make excuses and they didn't lose their physical identity.
The Steelers beat the New York Jets, 27-10, at Heinz Field. Correct that, the Steelers beat up the Jets. Pittsburgh shut down the Jets offense, holding New York to 219 total yards. The Steelers defense knocked around the Jets running backs and nearly knocked out Shonn Greene. The aggressive press coverage took out New York's wide receivers for the final three quarters. The Steelers were the hungrier team, and that showed in how they swarmed to the ball carriers and delivered shots to the receivers.
It's easy to put an asterisk by the Steelers' defensive effort because it came against Mark Sanchez. There's no argument that it was a bigger challenge to stop Peyton Manning last week than Sanchez on Sunday. But this was the same Jets offense that put up 34 points against the Bills a week ago.
The toughness of the Steelers defense came through in how it rebounded from its first two drives in which it allowed 10 points and 151 total yards. When the Jets marched down the field to go ahead 10-6 in the second quarter, there had to be some thoughts of how the Steelers defense struggled without Troy Polamalu in 2009. But, for the rest of the game, it was Sanchez who doubted his every move.
"We settled down," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor told reporters after the game. "I think everybody was hyped for this game. Looking at what them boys did last week, they handled their business on offense."
Over the final eight drives, the Steelers allowed seven first downs and three of them were off Pittsburgh penalties. The Jets managed to cross midfield only twice in that span, and the closest New York got to the end zone was the Pittsburgh 30-yard line. And this is against a Steelers defense that didn't have two players who have combined for 12 career Pro Bowls.
Without Polamalu and James Harrison, the Steelers don't present the same fear or unpredictability. Quarterbacks are always aware of Harrison breathing down their necks and Polamalu roaming along the line of scrimmage. Teams aren't sweating the likes of linebacker Chris Carter and safety Ryan Mundy. The biggest disappointment in the defense was the lack of game-changing plays. There were no interceptions or forced fumbles. There were only two sacks. This was the hole in the NFL's top-ranked defense's game last year.
But the Steelers' physical play on defense did make an impact, even if it didn't officially go down as a sack. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sanchez started the game by completing 4 of his first 5 passes for 80 yards and a touchdown. Then, after a roughing the passer penalty from Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons with 13:51 remaining in 2nd quarter, Sanchez went 6 of 22 for 58 yards.
What it's impossible to take away from this defense is its results, or the lack of results from the Jets. Take away Tim Tebow's 22-yard run, and Pittsburgh limited the Jets to 3.2 yards per carry. It looked like Mundy had knocked out Greene from the game after one shot in the first half. The Steelers roughed up the Jets' wide receivers, which is why Sanchez was 1 of 7 on third downs in the second half and why Santonio Holmes had one catch in the final three quarters.
The Pittsburgh defense rubbed off on its offense in the fourth quarter. The Steelers running backs broke tackle after tackle as the offense took 10 minutes, 13 seconds off the clock. It did seem like old times for the Steelers as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shrugged off blitzers and wide receiver Mike Wallace caught a long touchdown pass.
Even the Steelers defense was back to its stingy ways. Pittsburgh knows it's better (and yes, older) with Polamalu and Harrison. But after playing their first game without both of them in the lineup, the Steelers know they can do more than survive. They have enough punch left to thrive.