Steelers defense rebounds with new (and old) faces


Will Graves

AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH — The flurry of touchdowns was nice. Antonio Brown’s gleeful punt return too.

Still, the defining moments of Sunday night’s 45-10 win over Indianapolis came long before quarterback Ben Roethlisberger got going or Brown turned the goal post stanchion into an amusement park ride.

Twice in the first quarter, the Colts had the ball inside the Pittsburgh 30 following a turnover. Twice, the Steelers’ erratic defense responded. Linebacker Jarvis Jones ended Indianapolis’ first possession with a leaping interception at the goal line. The Colts went nowhere the next time they had the ball, settling for a field goal.

“Our ability to get off the field with a total of three points really set the stage and really provided a platform that the team sprung off of,” Tomlin said Tuesday.

A leap he felt was necessary if the Steelers (7-5) wanted to be considered a legitimate threat to make the postseason. Coach Mike Tomlin tweaked his secondary and challenged his front seven to get back to work after Seattle’s Russell Wilson toyed with Pittsburgh’s defense following a 39-30 loss, a game in which Wilson threw five touchdowns and rallied his team at will.

The defense responded by collecting five sacks — three from 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison — and shutting out the Colts over the final 38 minutes.

“Hopefully that performance can be a catalyst for the challenges that await us,” Tomlin said.

It certainly provided plenty of evidence that the collaboration between Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler can produce immediate results. Tomlin demoted cornerback Antwon Blake following a series of miscues against the Seahawks, giving Brandon Boykin his first extended playing time since Pittsburgh acquired him from Philadelphia during training camp.

Boykin responded with an interception in the first quarter and Blake — limited to 22 snaps — was a factor on special teams thanks in part to fresher legs.

“The distribution of snaps aided us all,” Tomlin said.

So did a change in tactics. Butler confused Indianapolis quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for much of the game. Tasked with creating more pressure in the opposing backfield last January when he took over for departed Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau, Butler hasn’t been shy about bringing pressure regardless of the situation.

Against the Colts, however, Butler switched things up. Jones’ first career pick came when he dropped into coverage rather than race in from his typical spot at outside linebacker. Faced with a fourth down at the Pittsburgh 14 late in the third quarter, the Colts went for it only to have the 40-year-old Hasselbeck throw incomplete after being unable to find any room to throw after the Steelers sent only three players after Hasselbeck while the other eight defenders cut off potential passing lanes.

It left the oldest quarterback in the league, one who’s seen just about everything in a career that dates to 1999, rattled.

“We didn’t see a lot of stuff that we necessarily prepared for,” Hasselbeck said. “I don’t know. I wish I could get some plays back but … they had me out of sync with the dropping eight and rushing three.”

Staked to a massive lead late, Butler then let his pass rushers go do their thing. Harrison took down Hasselbeck once and backup Charlie Whitehurst twice in the final 13 minutes, the five-time Pro Bowler’s first three-sack game since 2011. Heady territory for who was supposed to be a part-time player in his 13th season. Harrison saw just as many Arthur Moats (more than a decade younger) against the Colts and Tomlin is no longer getting into the specifics about his outside linebacker rotation.

“I just like the overall trajectory of the group,” Tomlin said.

One that faces a significant test on Sunday in Cincinnati, a test the Steelers believe they’re as equipped to handle as they’ve been all year.

“Coach always says, ‘It’s not how you take the field, it’s how you get off,’” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “It doesn’t matter how we get on there, we feel confident.”

Will Graves

AP Sports Writer

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