<
>

To go from good to great, Steelers must rely on emerging defense

PITTSBURGH -- Take Carson Wentz out of the Pittsburgh Steelers' lives, and this defense is soaring.

A few more performances like the one Sunday night and that Week 3 letdown in Philadelphia will fade fast.

For all the offensive wizardry in the 43-14 dismantling of the Kansas City Chiefs, it's the defense that brings the most optimism on this team's postseason chances. And through three games this group has done its part, giving up four total touchdowns to the Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals and the Chiefs, two of which came in Alex Smith's garbage time.

To go from good to great, the defense needs to build off its four-game start, starting Sunday against the reeling New York Jets in Heinz Field.

With two first-round picks and a starting safety in street clothes, the Steelers looked unfazed and fiercely physical.

These veteran defenders were angered by the 31-point Philly loss and knew they could clean things up, particularly the missed tackles.

"We try to play for pride," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We have a lot of pride in our room and wanted to keep them at zero."

The Steelers would be smart to jump to an early lead against New York, considering quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has 15 touchdowns and 20 interceptions since 2015 when the Jets are trailing, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. Fitzpatrick's four touchdowns to 10 interceptions this year set the stage for the Steelers to employ the game plan from Sunday night: Mix and match blitz looks, rely on defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to wreck havoc, then let the back seven do the rest.

This is a different defense when Heyward is healthy and explosive. His three sacks and a pass deflection resulting in a Jarvis Jones interception Sunday were no coincidence. He had been battling a high ankle sprain early in the season. Finally healthy, Heyward and Tuitt were active all night, and Jones has been playing good football despite no sacks on the year.

"We have the best big people in the NFL," said linebacker Vince Williams, who recorded 15 tackles and a sack in replace of injured Ryan Shazier. "Those guys really led the charge."

After sitting back and letting Wentz have his way the previous week, the Steelers intensified their blitzes off the edge Sunday and experimented with defensive backfield lineups because of injury. Cornerback Justin Gilbert played some in the slot. Ross Cockrell played a snap of safety. Safety Jordan Dangerfield acquitted himself well in relief. Smith was off balance all night, and by the time he found his footing, it was far too late.

First-round corner Artie Burns has come along faster than expected. He's playing significant snaps, and his diving pass breakup on a deep-ball attempt to Tyreek Hill.

Heyward said he knew the defense would respond from the Philly game. That's easy to do after a brutal loss. Now they don't plan to overlook the Jets, and they accomplish do that with a simple goal.

Give Roethlisberger and the offense prime field position.

"When we give them a short field, we relish those opportunities because we think that's seven points," Heyward said.