Jeremy Fowler, ESPN Staff Writer 21d

Steelers' defense on 60-sack pace after putting heat on Ravens

PITTSBURGH -- For all the talk through the first four weeks about the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense not taking flight, the other side of the ball might be doing that for them.

OK, maybe Pittsburgh hasn't exactly played a vaunted quarterback schedule thus far. But getting four sacks and seven tackles for loss in Baltimore is never easy. And with 15 sacks through four games, the Steelers' pace of 60 for the season would easily surpass last year's high (Arizona, 48).

"Right now, we're definitely clicking and learning how to play with each other," linebacker T.J. Watt said.

Posting those same numbers against Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers later this year should prove more difficult. But linebacker Bud Dupree pointed out what should be a good sign in future weeks.

The Steelers weren't scheming their sack opportunities. They were simply winning their matchups, sometimes multiple times per play. Several sacks were gang affairs.

"We knew what we were getting ourselves into. ... It was a one-on-one game," Dupree said. "That's how it is when you play Baltimore."

The Steelers have dished out contracts worth up to $121 million for defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward. Until Ryan Shazier gets paid, these two are expected to catalyze the defense each week. And their presence was felt early and often Sunday. Heyward was consistently applying the heat, with two sacks and many more pressures.

Asked what difference he noticed in the defense this week, Dupree said bluntly, "Tuitt. He's huge, he's fast, he's strong."

Joe Flacco's back-to-back interceptions in the fourth quarter were sparked by athletic plays by Shazier, but they wouldn't have happened without the pressure up front.

Pittsburgh's 23-17 overtime loss in Chicago proved the Steelers weren't as good as they thought they were against the run. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen combined for 218 rushing yards because of the gaping lanes the Steelers let develop. So all week, despite rampant questions surrounding the botched national anthem plan in Chicago, the Steelers' defenders tried to steer the conversation back to winning road games with defense, showing renewed pride in stopping the run.

Extract Alex Collins' 50-yard run in the second half and the Ravens managed just 2.3 yards per carry. Heyward is asking his defense to "keep challenging ourselves" to do that every week.

"We're going to try to stack the performances on top of each other," cornerback Joe Haden said. "Don't get too high when we play good and don't get too low when you play bad. Play consistent, a top-tier defense, and just continue to play like this."

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