Cowboys have no answer for Steelers' stifling defense

PITTSBURGH -- This is what you can do when you have the best defense in the NFL: With 12:26 left in the fourth quarter and his team trailing, 13-3, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't go for the easy field goal on fourth down from the Cowboys' 1-yard line. He went for the end zone. And when running back Gary Russell was thrown for a 2-yard loss, Tomlin didn't fret. He didn't have to.

When you have the best defense in the NFL, tops in every major statistical category, you have reason to believe that you can overcome your offense's shortcomings.

"One of the things, from a coaching standpoint, that makes you feel comfortable under those circumstances is that we've got a great defense," Tomlin said. "They've shown me, time and time again, that when we've got field position or potential field position they keep it for us. When you've got a great defensive unit, you take those chances, of course."

Of course.

Sure enough, Tomlin's faith was rewarded. Not only didn't the Cowboys score another point as the Steelers chipped their way back into a 13-13 tie, Pittsburgh's defense came up with the winning points when Deshea Townsend returned a Tony Romo interception 25 yards for a touchdown with 1:40 left.

That's what a championship defense does. And that's what the Steelers have.

Fourteen weeks into the season, the AFC is still somewhat of a riddle. The Tennessee Titans continue to cruise toward locking up homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and their defense is not to be taken lightly.

But is there really a team better equipped to represent the conference in the Super Bowl than the Steelers? We're not talking about simply a strong or smothering or dominant defense. We're talking about a defense that is in the process of making some significant history.

Going into Sunday's game, the Steelers were allowing just 73.0 rushing yards, 168.9 passing yards and 241.9 total yards per game. The last team to finish No. 1 in each of those three defensive categories was the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles. And if they maintain their No. 1 league standing in those three categories, plus scoring defense, they will become the first team to do so since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

Doesn't the football purist in all of us say that with a defense that incredibly good, how is any team going to stop them?

The Cowboys had a three-game winning streak built largely on the strength of their prolific passing game, which found new life once Romo returned from an injured finger. Then they came up against the Steelers, and Romo wound up throwing three interceptions and finishing with a dreadful passer rating of 44.9. In the first half, the Cowboys turned the ball over four times and twice failed to convert on fourth down. Terrell Owens caught Romo's lone touchdown pass, but was mostly quiet.

"You've got T.O., you've got (Jason) Witten, you've got Tony Romo ... an awesome challenge," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "And we enjoyed it. It was fun."

This came a week after another day of "fun" for the Steelers' defense in Foxborough, Mass., when it cooled off the red-hot passing hand of Matt Cassel.

The Steelers defense is extraordinarily talented and extraordinarily well coached. Dick LeBeau is as fine a defensive coordinator as the NFL has ever seen. But this team has additional defensive brain power from Tomlin, an outstanding former coordinator who is proving to be an outstanding head coach.

The Steelers defense attacks and makes plays. It confuses and confounds. And each of its members carries himself with the sort of confidence that tells you this is a special group. Not cocky, but just aware of its excellence. When you hear one of them talk about playing "Steeler football," you know it means coming up with a big stop or a game-deciding turnover.

After Russell failed to punch it in from the 1-yard line, Clark assured his offensive teammates, "We've got your back. We'll get it back for you."

This isn't exactly the sort of thing the Steelers offense wants to rely on every week. Ben Roethlisberger isn't happy that he was sacked five times or had one of Pittsburgh's two fumbles. But he and his offensive teammates also understand the team would not be close to 10-3 without the defense's dominance.

"Our defense has had our back all year," center Justin Hartwig said. "They're carrying our team, there's no doubt about it."

Hartwig, who played for Tennessee and Carolina before joining Pittsburgh this year, remembers the times when he was on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage from the Steelers defense.

For the most part, the memories aren't pleasant.

"I know what they're all about," Hartwig said. "It's a very intimidating defense to go against. They bring so much pressure and they're so good in the secondary at the same time. It has to be considered one of the greatest defenses of all time, in my opinion.

"Nobody wants to go against these guys. We're fortunate that they're on our team."

The temperature was 22 degrees for the Steelers-Cowboys game. The wind-chill made it feel like 8 degrees.

This is the time of year when NFL success is ruled by defense. This is the Steelers' time of year.

"I think there are some teams in this league that go into some games saying, 'We're going to play out of our body, out of our mind, to win today,'" Clark said. "I don't think we ever have that feeling. I feel like every game we go into, if we do what we have to do and we play Steeler football, we have an opportunity of winning.

"And that's all you can ask for."

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