PITTSBURGH -- Entering the season, experts wondered if the Pittsburgh Steelers were a secondary away from being a Super Bowl contender.
Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert had tried to address the questions for a defense in transition. He made the secondary the primary focus of the team's offseason. But luck wasn't with him. Second-round pick Senquez Golson from Ole Miss was supposed to patrol the slot and intercept passes. Fourth-round pick Doran Grant was considered an outside prospect. Golson went on injured reserve. Grant couldn't make the 53-man roster. Cornerback Cortez Allen makes $6.15 million a year, but he's on the weekly inactive list. Colbert traded a fifth-round pick for slot cornerback Brandon Boykin, but he's not seeing the field.
On paper, it's a big problem.
But believe or not, the Steelers' pass defense has them looking like a Super Bowl contender. Expectations were low, but performance has been high. Pittsburgh is a proud city accustomed to stifling defenses, and while we assumed this would be a team that needed to score a ton to make up for a leaky defense, it turns out that thanks to this secondary, Steelers fans can still wave the Terrible Towel, not the white towel.
William Gay, Antwon Blake, Mike Mitchell, Will Allen, Robert Golden and Ross Cockrell aren't going to bring back memories of the Steel Curtain days with Mel Blount, J.T. Thomas, Donnie Shell and others. The current defense might not be recognized if it went in to buy a Primanti's sandwich.
But six games into the season, the Steelers' secondary has been a winner.
"We play together as a team," Gay, a cornerback, said. "We stay focused. We challenge each other in practice. We do what the coaches tell us. We may give up yards, but we don't give up points."
Let's look at the numbers.
Last year, the Steelers gave up 23 points a game and went 11-5, but they saw some notable personnel losses after the season. Figuring their offense was good enough to average close to 30 points a game, all the Steelers wanted was a defense that would give up only 25 points a game. Things changed three weeks ago when Ben Roethlisberger suffered an MCL injury. To be able to win with Michael Vick starting, the defense had to surrender only about 20. And minus Big Ben, the Steelers gave up 20 points to San Diego and only 13 to the high-scoring Arizona Cardinals in Sunday's somewhat stunning 25-13 victory.
"We always want to keep the score under 17," safety Allen said. "That's one of our goals as a team. We've been close to that number all year. We understand the defenses. We understand who is getting the ball. Our guys just made great plays."
As much as former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was the main story Sunday, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler turned out to be the star in a game with plenty of subplots. Steelers ownership made Mike Tomlin let Arians go four years ago. Arians, after a one-year stop in Indianapolis, has become one of the best coaches in the league in Arizona.
When Arians lost defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the head-coaching job with the New York Jets, the Steelers had to let longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau go in order to promote Butler as the defensive coordinator. The Steelers feared Arians would hire Butler, who was ticketed as their defensive coordinator of the future.
Butler prepared the Steelers well for Arians. The Cardinals entered the game averaging 38 points a game, but the revenge factor was high on Butler's mind. He stressed to defenders that they should make sure they kept Cardinals pass-catchers in front of them. The Cardinals have speed and playmaking ability, and quarterback Carson Palmer has been playing well.
"They have the best offense in the league," said Mitchell, a safety. "To hold them to 13 points was huge. No one has been able to do that all year. We knew it was going to be a challenge. We don't have everybody that we need to have, but we have a really tight-knit group and we always have a 'next man up' mentality."
The secondary will concede yards. It has little choice. Many opponents can win the talent challenge. Palmer completed 29 of 45 passes for 421 yards, but Butler stressed to the defense to tighten up and adjust tactics in the red zone. The Cardinals had four trips into the Steelers' red zone, but only one ended in a touchdown.
Butler made sure the players knew Arizona would take risks.
"Bruce is a gambler and he likes to go for the big chunks of yards," Allen said. "He loves to score a lot of points. Carson is a gunslinger."
Mitchell used those facts against the Cardinals late in the game. Everyone knows smart defenders can bait Palmer into a deep throw. For years, defenders would post a single-safety look knowing Palmer would test the deep area with a long pass. Working with Arians has made Palmer smarter in those situations and cut down on interceptions.
With under three minutes left and Palmer at the Steelers' 20-yard line, Mitchell basically baited Palmer to throw an interception.
"My instincts took over," Mitchell said. "I could feel he was going to try a double post. I acted like I was going to take Larry Fitzgerald. When I saw Carson, I knew where he was throwing. I acted like I was going to take Larry, but I shot back in and he never saw me."
Mitchell's interception essentially ended the game, and now Pittsburgh is 2-1 without its starting QB. "We have a good football team," Mitchell said. "No. 7 [Roethlisberger] is one of the better players in the league. We have 52 other guys on the football. Obviously it hurts not having him. He's a great player, and not having him doesn't make it any easier. We believe in each other as a group and we are going to fight."
When Roethlisberger returns, watch out.
Inside the Huddle
• Speaking of secondaries, the Seahawks must now re-evaluate what is going wrong with theirs. Cam Newton became the fourth quarterback to lead a fourth-quarter comeback against the Legion of Boom this season. Communication problems were evident when Newton threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen that clinched a 27-23 victory for the Panthers. That defense needs to get on the same page soon, because it's already getting late in Seattle.
• The win was a big one for Newton and the Panthers. The Panthers were going to be at a disadvantage winning the NFC South over Atlanta because of the two non-common games. Carolina played Seattle on the road and Green Bay at home. The Falcons have Minnesota at home and San Francisco away. By winning a road game over the Seahawks, the Panthers enhanced their chances of staying with the Falcons in the NFC South race. Newton, meanwhile, may have moved even further into the "elite quarterback" conversation.
• Dan Campbell's interim debut was great. The defense was physical and stuffed Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans in a 38-10 win. It was important that he got the running game going. Lamar Miller had 113 yards on 19 carries. Ryan Tannehill was sharp. "A completely different team," Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo said about the Dolphins.
• Rex Ryan blamed himself for calling a few too many three-man rushes against Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton in a 34-21 loss to the Bengals. The Bills continue to be penalized too much -- eight times for 93 yards Sunday. That's three straight home losses for the Bills. Meanwhile, Todd Bowles has the 4-1 New York Jets playing flawlessly and looking like a playoff team. Go figure.
• Except for the Indianapolis Colts, the AFC South looks bleak. The Houston Texans didn't play that well in a 31-20 win over Jacksonville, which also tells you where the Jags are. The Titans continue to look worse and worse after their loss to Miami. Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee are 3-9 against nondivision opponents. All three teams could be heading to five-win seasons or worse.
• Colin Kaepernick finally showed some progress in the 49ers' 25-20 victory over Baltimore. The Ravens blitzed him 52 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and Kaepernick completed 9 of 14 passes and had two touchdowns and 16.8 yards per attempt against that pressure. He had averaged 4.5 yards an attempt and completed 22 of 46 passes against the blitz in the first five games.
• The Denver Broncos need the bye week to figure out Peyton Manning's problems on offense. They struggled to beat the Cleveland Browns in overtime, 26-23, and Manning threw his third pick-six of the season and can't get the ball downfield. "Obviously, we've had a ton of breaks," Manning said. "I won't be going to Vegas for my bye weekend. I'm not feeling lucky now. Tipped balls seem to be going to them. There were a couple of plays that I couldn't quite connect. There are some times when obviously things aren't going so well."
• Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's move from the field to the press box did seem to help in Detroit's 37-34 victory over Chicago. Matthew Stafford had 405 yards and four touchdowns. The run game was also there.
• Philip Rivers would be an MVP candidate were it not for the Chargers' 2-4 record. He's thrown for 2,116 yards in six games, has completed 70 percent of his passes and has 12 touchdowns. His 503-yard game against the Green Bay Packers was amazing, but the Packers made the final stand to win it 27-20.
• One of the biggest mysteries this year has been the slow start of the Kansas City Chiefs' defense. Before Kansas City's 16-10 loss to Minnesota, the Chiefs ranked 26th on defense for yards allowed and were giving up 28.6 points a game. They limited the Vikings to 321 yards and held Adrian Peterson to 60. But they got nothing done on offense and are now 1-5.