Defense makes Steelers a threat in fight for AFC supremacy

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It was the kind of day best spent indoors, preferably in front of a fireplace: Cold, rainy, downright miserable.

"Normal Pittsburgh weather," Steelers tackle Willie Colon said with a smile.

Except, of course, that he was talking about conditions in Gillette Stadium, not Heinz Field.

But given all that Colon and his Steelers teammates controlled against the New England Patriots, the weather might as well have been on the list, too.

After spotting the Patriots a seven-point lead in the first half, the Steelers simply called upon the brute force that has served them so well for so long and began pounding away on offense and especially on defense. Thirty unanswered points later they had a 33-10 victory that made a fairly compelling case for them to be recognized as something a whole lot more than the strongest team in the AFC North.

At 9-3, the Steelers have quietly, but steadily, put themselves in the conversation as one of the best clubs in their conference, if not the very best. They are 8-1 in the AFC, with the lone defeat coming in Week 10 when they led the Colts for the first 57 minutes.

The Tennessee Titans (11-1) had presumably held the top spot for most of the season, but all of that changed after last week's lopsided loss to the New York Jets. And any notion that the Jets had assumed that status quickly vanished when they fell to 8-4 with their lopsided loss to the Denver Broncos.

Perhaps the same thing could happen to the Steelers at some point in the next four weeks, maybe as soon as their Week 14 clash with the soaring Dallas Cowboys. For now, though, they command our attention in a big way.

That is, after going the better part of 12 weeks hovering a little bit under the radar.

"We love it," linebacker James Farrior said. "We don't need all of the attention. That might be a distraction for us. We like staying under the radar and just doing what we do."

"I think we are a kind of nicely boring team," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "We just come and find a way to win. It seems like each week it is a different group of guys that steps up and makes plays, and that is what is carrying us through."

Against the Patriots it was the defense that did the heaviest lifting. Bad weather and Steeler defense have been a natural combination for the better part of 30-plus years. This season is no exception.

The Steelers entered the New England game ranked first in all three major defensive categories -- total yards allowed, rushing yards, and passing yards. They demonstrated that they are every bit as fierce as the numbers suggest.

Remember all of the giddy talk about Matt Cassel after he threw for 415 yards against Miami last week to become only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to have back-to-back 400-yard games? The Steelers made him look awfully ordinary, reminding so many of us that the Patriots still are missing a lot without Tom Brady.

Cassel was stripped of the ball twice by linebacker James Harrison. He also was intercepted two times, while a third pickoff was dropped. The Steelers defense, particularly the front seven, wanted to make a statement with its performance against Cassel. And it did.

"We had the mentality that, 'He's been playing good and having good games, but we're going to see what he does against our defense,' " Farrior said. "We feel like we can stop anybody at any time, no matter what."

The Steelers can turn hot quarterbacks stone cold. They can overpower offensive lines. They can stuff the run, even though the Patriots did gash them for a couple of long gains. They are aggressive and punishing and relentless.

Their offense isn't quite as strong or as consistent. But when the Steelers want to muscle up, they can. They started to do so late in the first half against the Patriots, and continued to do so through the rest of the game. Five second-half turnovers by the Patriots also made the Steelers' offensive chore a bit easier; Pittsburgh scored 20 points off New England's mistakes.

"I think we got the sense that we started to wear on them a little bit going into halftime (with the score tied 10-10)," Colon said. "As a line, we kind of saw their faces. We knew if we kept pounding the rock, we kept sticking to it and knuckling up with them, they were going to break. And they did."

It's the perfect formula for this time of year when, in places like Pittsburgh, the weather presents the sort of challenges that it did in Foxborough.

Meanwhile, the stakes keep getting higher. The Steelers understand that all too well.

"If you go back to last year, we kind of fizzled around this time," Colon said, referring to the fact the Steelers lost three of their final four regular-season games, beginning with a blowout loss at Gillette Stadium. "We've just got to be able to keep it going. We can't take this win for granted. We can't take the Cowboys for granted. When you go into the postseason, you want to be able to hit the ground running."

That didn't happen in 2007, and the Steelers were promptly bounced by Jacksonville.

Based on what they showed against the Patriots, they seem to have what it takes for a longer stay in the playoffs. And they definitely have our attention.

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