PITTSBURGH -- In a year where very few teams are playing elite defense, the Steelers may have found their niche.
After playing through various fines, penalties and other struggles earlier this season, Pittsburgh's defense is gaining momentum. It put together another dominant performance in Sunday's 23-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (2-11).
The Steelers held the Bengals to 190 total yards of offense, forced three interceptions and kept Cincinnati scoreless after its opening drive. Pittsburgh also scored two defensive touchdowns for the first time since Nov. 22, 1998, courtesy of pick-sixes by safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers' defense scored more than their offense (nine points) and the entire Bengals team (seven points) in this AFC North win.
In the past month, Pittsburgh is allowing only nine points per game and the team is 4-0 in that stretch. This was also the second time in four games the Steelers kept an opponent to fewer than 200 total yards.
Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense is hardening at just the right time with the postseason just around the corner.
"We want to be great and we want to be remembered," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "When you can hold teams to less and less yards each week, that's what good teams do. That's what we pride ourselves on around here."
Considering their strong track record and recent play, if there is any defense to bank on this postseason, it is Pittsburgh's. The Steelers are No. 1 against the run by a wide margin and now are forcing turnovers when opponents drop back to pass. This group also has championship experience, leading Pittsburgh to its sixth Super Bowl title in 2008. This is a combination no other playoff contender can boast defensively.
Each week Pittsburgh's defense is looking more like the 2008 version. It swarmed Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, sacking him three times and rushing him into three turnovers. Polamalu had two interceptions, which included the first pick-six that got the Steelers going (they eventually scored 23 unanswered points).
Polamalu is playing at a Pro Bowl level and deserves to be mentioned in the NFL MVP conversation.
"Our defense is just something else," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "Troy and I always talk before the last couple of games. I tell him to do something magical and he tells me to do something magical. Troy always does it."
Here are some other notes on Pittsburgh's win over Cincinnati:
Beware of penalties: Pittsburgh had nine penalties for 89 yards and remains one of the NFL's most-penalized teams. That could hurt the Steelers in a close playoff game. Some calls this season have been questionable, but Pittsburgh's various holding calls and other errors committed against Cincinnati were legitimate. It was the primary reason the Steelers' offense couldn't get in the end zone.
"When you are looking at first-and-30, it's tough," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said of one scenario. "Somehow we overcame that. For the most part, we have all year when we get behind the chains with the penalties."
Bengals look defeated: Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis didn't have many answers in his shortest postgame news conference of the season, which lasted approximately two minutes. Palmer said he had no "words to describe" how down the Bengals feel right now. And Cincinnati receiver Terrell Owens was critical of the play calling on offense for the second week in a row.
"I have no idea; I'm just going with the plays that are called," Owens said. "I don't call [plays], I just run them. Sometimes I just feel like I'm out there running. In the beginning of the game I got some looks. But after that, that was it. We had no adjustments."
These things happen when a team loses 10 games in a row. The Bengals continue to fall apart, and the end of the season can't come soon enough for this disappointing group.
Officiating Ben: Roethlisberger, who already has an injured foot and is recovering from a broken nose, took another pounding against the Bengals. Cincinnati sacked Roethlisberger four times and had several questionable hits that were not flagged. Controversial plays included Bengals safety Roy L. Williams hitting Roethlisberger on a blitz after the ball was thrown and Roethlisberger complaining that his facemask was grabbed for the second week in a row. Roethlisberger vented to the refs but no flag was thrown. Several teammates stood up for their quarterback.
“It’s terrible, man,” Steelers linebacker and captain James Farrior said. “I think they protect all of the quarterbacks but ours. But we’re going to keep on fighting … Hopefully they’ll catch it one day.”
Jets upcoming: Next up for Pittsburgh is a big game against the New York Jets (9-4). Both teams should make the playoffs, but this contest could have a major impact on seeding in the AFC. The Steelers hold a 1 1/2 game lead over the Baltimore Ravens (8-4) in the AFC North and will continue to be in control of the division regardless of what happens in Monday's Ravens-Texans game.