PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin was hollering to nobody in particular Sunday afternoon, although his three bosses -- Dan Rooney, Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert -- were standing nearby with amused smiles on their faces.
"How about that young man?" Tomlin bellowed as Stephon Tuitt dressed at his locker a few feet away. "Man, that was a big-time play. Don't pat yourself on the back now. We've got more business."
Tuitt, the Steelers' second-round pick in this spring's draft, was part of an offseason overhaul intended to bring youth and speed where age had begun to fray the Steel Curtain. But through an oddly unpredictable season, there hasn't always been much to shout about when considering this defense. Pittsburgh entered the penultimate game of the regular season ranked 20th in points allowed and 19th in total defense, ranks so out of character that the team last sank to them in 1991, the final year of the reign of Chuck Noll, the coach who oversaw the most glittering period of Steelers football and its most legendary defense.
This season, the Steelers have celebrated the upcoming 40th anniversary of the first Super Bowl championship they won with Noll. But on Sunday afternoon, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was shaking his head in relief as he walked up the tunnel and received congratulations from his players. Pittsburgh had secured at least an AFC wild-card spot by beating the Kansas City Chiefs 20-12 in a throwback defensive performance that summoned memories of the players who inspired the Terrible Towels they still wave here. The Steelers will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, when, not coincidentally, the defense finished first overall and in points allowed before starting a slow slide that swallowed the last two seasons in non-playoff 8-8 endings.
For a team that has won six Super Bowls largely on the back of defense, that two-year layoff counts as a drought. It precipitated a slow passing of the baton from one generation to the next that even LeBeau admitted the Steelers held off as long as they could because of the longevity and quality of the older players.
Tuitt forced the only turnover of the game on a hit on Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles -- the lack of turnovers has been a particular Steelers problem for several years now -- but even beyond that, the defense looked much more like the defenses of old than it had at any other point this season, and the sense of satisfaction was obvious in the locker room. The hits were harder, the sacks (six) more plentiful than they have been in any game in exactly two years, and the suddenly-ageless James Harrison (36) was abusing second-year pro -- and former first overall pick -- Eric Fisher as if he were 10 years younger.
The Chiefs were 0 for 4 in the red zone, kept out of the end zone after reaching the Steelers' 8, 4, 12 and 5. Just before halftime, the Chiefs, trailing by just four, had fourth-and-1 on the Steelers' 12 yard line. Charles took the ball up the middle and was stood up by Lawrence Timmons and Harrison for no gain. The Chiefs had stalled again. How unexpected was that? The Chiefs were second in red-zone offense entering the game; the Steelers were 22nd in red-zone defense.
Back in the summer, as he surveyed all the new faces and fleet feet that had been collected for LeBeau's use, 33-year-old safety Troy Polamalu mused about being the oldest, most experienced player, and he warned against assuming that speed alone would solve the Steelers' problems. Polamalu knew that the complexity of LeBeau's scheme presents a steep learning curve for players new to it. About a month ago, Harrison -- whose fountain-of-youth return to the Steelers has energized the pass rush (he had 1.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss Sunday), and who is already being asked about playing again next season -- said he thought the defense was developing a personality, although he wasn't sure what it was. On Sunday, he cautioned against making much more of a game in which the defense played better than it has all season.
"I don't think we want to get too high on it," said Cameron Heyward. "We just made some plays. We expect that. We just expect to grow from this. Tuitt ran to the ball. We've been preaching that since training camp. We grew up a lot today, and we want to take another step next week. These wins don't come lightly. I know what this team is capable of. We've got the goods."
If he's right, it's difficult not to view the Steelers as a potentially dangerous playoff team. Their offense has been a powerhouse all season -- it was ranked first in total offense entering the game, a perch the Steelers have held only once at the end of a season in team history, in 1979, when they won Noll's final Super Bowl, with Terry Bradshaw throwing to John Stallworth and Lynn Swann. But with the offense accumulating its fewest yards of the season (282) Sunday, the defense provided -- as it has the last three weeks -- the kind of balance that had been absent most of the year.
During the week, Tomlin challenged the defense by taunting it. Who, he asked, would have more rushing yards: the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell or Charles? Bell did, 63 to 29. The Chiefs tried to use a variety of quick passes and screens to make up for the lack of a running game, and Alex Smith threw for 311 yards. The 327 yards the Steelers allowed were the fifth fewest they'd yielded to any opponent this season, but only one of the opponents who've been held to fewer -- the Ravens in Week 2 -- has a winning record. The others -- Jacksonville, the Jets and Tennessee -- have combined to win eight games.
"That's something we're a little accustomed to doing, and we want to get back to that point, to the top," Harrison said.
The apex for Pittsburgh, of course, has been raised since the 1970s, much higher than even a division title. It is worth noting that the Steelers waited until this year to retire Joe Greene's number, because they were worried that if they started retiring numbers, they wouldn't be able to stop, so talented were the teams that gave them the identity that only this year's offensive explosion has begun to shift.
The relief of making the playoffs was visible on LeBeau's face Sunday, as Dan Rooney made his way around the locker room, shaking players' hands. Blitzburgh might not be all the way back quite yet, but Harrison said Pittsburgh was heading in the right direction.
"We won't exhale until we have a Super Bowl," Heyward said. "We're going to keep holding our breath."