How the Steelers plan to become a feared defense once again

PITTSBURGH -- For a moment, let's forget about the ability of the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary or whether young draft picks will pan out.

None of that matters if the Steelers' retooled defense can do two things.

Stop the run, get the fear factor back.

The great Steelers defenses could shake the mental toughness of a quarterback by placing him in third-and-longs, then driving shoulders into the chest of that quarterback.

Four NFL seasons is enough for defensive end Cam Heyward to know run-stopping is the best way for the Steelers to get back to that.

"When you look back at the top defenses, here at least, it's all made on stopping the run," Heyward said. "I remember 2010, I had read something about the Steelers and they were talking about they had the best defense ever, and they stopped the run. They got after the quarterback and got interceptions. That didn't really didn't start until you had the front line creating havoc."

That 2010 team made the Super Bowl behind the league's best rushing defense that gave up an insane 3.0 yards per game. The year before, the Steelers finished ninth in the league in rushing yards allowed per attempt, and went 12-4.

Somehow, the 2012 team lost eight games despite allowing 3.7 yards per attempt. Last year's Steelers were tied for 25th in rushing defense and still won 11 games because the offense was so good. The Steelers ranked in the league's bottom third in interceptions and sacks, which is very un-Steelers like.

The way to fix that is clear-cut, safety Shamarko Thomas said.

"Like coach (Mike Tomlin) told us this morning, run stop and just hit," Thomas said. "The big dudes run around fast and the little dudes lay the lick. That's the big thing."

Heyward isn't expecting a defensive overhaul under new coordinator Keith Butler, a long-time member of Tomlin's staff, but he believes Butler will promote more one-on-one matchups for all 11 players. Also, Thomas said he expects more run-hitting opportunities for defensive backs.

"I think this year we're going to have a lot more guys to the ball, where you have the defensive linemen not just holding up guys, but where we have to make the play as well," Heyward said. "Coach Buts said early on, ‘I'm not going to hold you back. I want the linebackers to fend for themselves. I expect you guys to make plays for yourself.' Hopefully we all can help out and make more plays. In the rush, we are going to play some one-on-one situations where we have to win. We expect to."

How does Heyward, fresh off a 7.5-sack season and entering a contract year, feel about potentially getting more one-on-ones?

"I'm salivating," Heyward said. "I can't wait until the season starts."

Thomas remembers too many offenses gaining yards on underneath passing routes. This defense must clean that up.

"Read the QB, play man to man well, and no matter what you do, run to the ball," Thomas said.

Only then will the Steelers be truly feared again.