CLEVELAND - The Steelers defense has put together a remarkable run to end the regular season, but safety Ryan Clark hasn't been overly impressed.
"No disrespect, but we haven't faced many world beaters,'' Clark said after the Steelers held off the 4-12 Cleveland Browns, 13-9, on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Clark is correct in that the Steelers have faced marginal offenses in the Kansas City Chiefs, St. Louis Rams and the Browns twice in the last six weeks, but it's hard to overlook what the defense has done over that span - holding five of six opponents to nine points or less.
The one team to score more than 10 points on them was San Francisco, and it benefited from Steelers turnovers to score most of its points.
It hasn't exactly been a performance like the 1976 Steel Curtain, which recorded five shutouts and held nine of its final 11 opponents to six points or less. But, in this era of the NFL, where the rules favor the offenses more - eight teams scored 34 points or more on Sunday - one can't be too critical of the 2011 Steelers defense.
Statistically, the Steelers finished with the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL this season, both in the amount of yards and points allowed.
"It huge when you're holding teams to field goals,'' Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We finished as the No. 1 defense, and that was a goal for us.''
The defense came up big again in Cleveland with Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu making the key play in the game. With the score tied at 6-6 in the third quarter, Polamalu stepped in front of Browns tight end Evan Moore and intercepted a Seneca Wallace pass near midfield.
The Steelers responded to the big defensive play by marching to the end zone for their only touchdown of the game.
"Got lucky I guess,'' Polamalu said about the interception. "They just had a flat curl route, and I was just going wherever the ball was going.''
But Polamalu came up with other key plays, timing a snap and sacking Wallace for a 3-yard loss, knocking away a short pass to Peyton Hills and being involved in knocking away a desperation throw by the Browns on the final play of the game.
In addition, cornerback Ike Taylor held receiver Greg Little without a catch, linebacker Lawrence Timmons and Clark recorded sacks, and cornerback William Gay knocked away two passes.
"We need to get more turnovers,'' Keisel said. "Troy's pick was huge, but we need to get more turnovers. But I thought any time you hold an NFL team to single digits [in points], it's pretty good.''
Unlike in the 49ers game, the defense came through after the offense put it in bad positions. Twice in the fourth quarter, Steelers running back Isaac Redman fumbled the ball to the Browns, but both times the Pittsburgh defense kept the Browns from getting into scoring range.
"We knew we had to go out and get stops,'' Keisel said. "We got a good defense, and sometimes in situations you have to make a stop and give your team a chance to win. And we did that today.''
The defense has been performing well for the last two months, and that's been without one of its defensive stars in linebacker LaMarr Woodley. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the game that Woodley could be ready for the playoffs.
"It's that time of year,'' Tomlin said. "[The defense has] got to respond in that manner. We expect them to. We appreciate the fact that they delivered, but that's the level of expectation, particularly this time of year.''
The Steelers will travel to Denver in the first round of playoffs. If they get past the Broncos, they'll face the prospect of traveling to Baltimore and New England to reach the Super Bowl.
With the offense not playing well, the Steelers defense, which was highly criticized for being too old after their first-game loss to the Ravens back in September, will need to continue on its strong stretch run.
"On defense, we have a lot of work to still do,'' Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "But we'll be alright. Everybody's got guys banged up at this time of year. You just got to go out and get it done.''
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or email@example.com.