For now, Steelers defense has team feeling good
PITTSBURGH – The ball was snapped and Jarvis Jones sprinted forward.
A moment later, he was in the Buffalo Bills backfield. A split second after that, Buffalo quarterback E.J. Manuel tumbled meekly to the Heinz Field turf in apparent surrender. Jones stood up and walked back to the Pittsburgh Steelers huddle. No big celebration. No histrionics necessary.
Instead, Jones was all business. The rookie linebacker figures he was just doing what he gets paid to do. Sure, he didn’t think he’d have to wait nine games into his career to pick up his first professional sack. Whatever joy Jones felt at ending the drought didn’t come close to the relief of helping the Steelers restore a sense of normalcy to their universe in a 23-10 win over Buffalo on Sunday.
“We just came out and played our style of defense,” Jones said. “We were getting after the quarterback, pressuring, giving our offense the best chance to put points on the board.”
The Steelers (3-6) spent a week reading the obituary on the 2013 season after the New England Patriots embarrassed them in a 55-31 loss. In the span of 60 minutes against a team in the midst of its own rebuilding process, Pittsburgh’s resilient defense played with the kind of discipline and tenacity it has lacked for significant stretches this year.
Buffalo managed just 227 total yards, 80 coming on a meaningless touchdown drive in the final minutes with the game already decided. Rookie Manuel never appeared comfortable in a pocket that never appeared settled. Running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson found little room to move.
Though the Bills aren’t the Patriots, not even close, Pittsburgh couldn’t afford to be picky. The Steelers had already been beaten by the likes of Tennessee, Minnesota and Oakland this season, and looked a step slow while doing so.
The missing step returned against Buffalo. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau promised a return to fundamentals in the aftermath of the debacle in New England. His players responded with sure tackling and a swagger seen only in spurts.
When Spiller or Jackson tried to bounce a run outside, the Steelers shut the door. When Manuel tried to avoid pressure, Pittsburgh chased him down. When he looked for a receiver, he often checked off to a safety valve for a short gain because nobody else was open.
“We didn’t have to press in any way,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We didn’t have to create plays or do anything extra. Everybody was able to just do their job and I guess that was a big thing for us as a secondary was not trying to play everything.”
Instead, Clark and company could sit back and attack whenever Manuel tried to challenge them. When Manuel threw deep over the middle in the fourth quarter hoping to kick-start a rally, Clark tracked it down and returned it deep into Buffalo territory to set up a late field goal.
Clark briefly considered pitching the ball to Troy Polamalu before keeping it himself. Though Clark ended up 13 yards short of the first touchdown of his 12-year career, he wasn’t exactly complaining. It hadn’t been the easiest week for the Steelers. His pick helped seal Pittsburgh’s best performance of the year and lay the groundwork for what it hopes is a more productive second half.
“The only thing we could do is try to prepare enough to beat the Buffalo Bills and be a good enough team to do that,” Clark said. “That’s all the week offered us, and that was the goal.”
The next one will be significantly tougher: NFC North-leading Detroit Lions (6-3) and all-everything wide receiver Calvin Johnson next week. The Lions present a significant step up in class. The game plan, however is unlikely to change. It rarely does for one of the NFL’s most stable franchises.
“You just want to stop the run and get after the quarterback,” linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “You get after the quarterback, you allow your secondary to make plays. You do that, you play good against the run, you do what you’re supposed to do and your offense puts points on the board and usually you’re in a good spot.”