Too early for this dominant Steelers defense to take Curtain call

TAMPA, Fla. -- When you consider what carried the Pittsburgh Steelers to their second Super Bowl in four seasons and the seventh in their history, it's impossible not make the obvious comparison.

There was the Steel Curtain of the 1970s. Now, there is Steel Curtain II ... or, perhaps, the New Steel Curtain.

Thirty-plus years ago, the Curtain was formed by the likes of "Mean" Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount. Today, players such as Casey Hampton, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu provide the iron-clad thread.

Different names. Familiar dominance.

Pittsburgh's defense has ranked No. 1 in the NFL in each of the last two seasons and in 2008 nearly became the first defense since 1991 to lead the league in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense (ranking No. 2 against the run spoiled the trifecta). It did not allow a 100-yard rusher in the '08 regular season or playoffs and gave up more than 10 points only once through the final seven games on the schedule. It generated 51 sacks in the '08 regular season and seven more in the playoffs. It has the '08 Defensive Player of the Year (Harrison). It is sending three players to next week's Pro Bowl (Harrison, Polamalu and James Farrior).

But the discussion of how closely the Steelers' current defense compares with the one that ruled the NFL when disco and polyester were all the rage makes several members of the present unit a little uncomfortable.

"We have expectations of being great because that's what we strive for," free safety Ryan Clark said. "(But) the Steel Curtain was a once-in-a-lifetime defense. There are many players from that defense who are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I don't know if we are that type of team. We have players who deserve to go (eventually), but I don't know if they will. We are probably not as athletically blessed as those guys were."

Said defensive end Aaron Smith: "I appreciate those compliments, but I would never try to put ourselves in the class of what those gentlemen have done in the past. Their accomplishments are legendary, and we're still going through this process."

Much of the hesitance to compare the two defenses stems from the fact that the present team (specifically, 20 of its players) only has one Super Bowl victory to its credit. The Steel Curtain helped produce four Vince Lombardi trophies in six seasons.

Of course, there's likely to be a significant change in tone if the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.

"It's all about how you finish," outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "The thing about that group back then, they finished. They went out there and they won Super Bowls. We're going to be remembered by how we go out and finish this game on Sunday."

Still, Woodley and follow outside linebacker Harrison already have made the sort of history that bridges two eras of Steelers football. Their combined 27.5 sacks (16 by Harrison, 11.5 by Woodley) made them the most prolific sacking duo in team history.

Trying to block them is no easier for opponents than dealing with Greene or L.C. Greenwood or Dwight White was back in the day.

"You just want to come in and try to hold up the tradition," Harrison said. "You don't want to be the guy who comes in and slacks down. When they say, 'Pittsburgh comes in with a great set of linebackers except for so-and-so,' you don't want to be that guy."

Some current Steelers defenders also aren't necessarily thrilled with the notion that their only validation for greatness must come from what was achieved in the '70s. They'd prefer to have their accomplishments stand alone -- to be judged by what they do in relation to other defenses of today and against offenses that arguably pose greater challenges athletically and strategically.

"It's nice to be compared to those guys, but at the same time, we're trying to build our own identity," said Hampton, a veteran nose tackle. "Not taking anything away from those guys, but I think we've got a pretty good defense, too. The comparison is good, but if we go out here and win this game, we can have people talking about us like they talk about those guys in the past."

What makes today's Steelers defense so strong? What gives it the chance to succeed against the Cardinals, who have one of the most explosive offenses in the league?

First, there is unity. To a man, members of Pittsburgh's defense rave about the ultra-tight bond they have formed. They describe what they have as a brotherhood.

One play that illustrates how focused Steelers defenders are on working together and pulling in the same direction was Polamalu's 40-yard interception return for a touchdown that served as the knockout blow in the 23-14 victory over Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game. It wasn't the interception itself, but rather the fact that so many of the Pro Bowl strong safety's teammates were doing everything in their power to help pave the way to the end zone.

As far as Smith was concerned, the abundance of blocking that Polamalu received is the very definition of what the defense is all about.

"We play as a unit," he said. "There's not a D-line, there's not a linebacker, there's not a DB. We play as a whole group, and we win and we lose as a group. I've never been on a team where guys were so selfless."

Said Harrison: "Everything goes hand in hand. The defensive line helps out the linebackers, the linebackers help out the secondary and the secondary helps the pass rush. Knowing that we are going to have a little extra time to get to the quarterback really helps us out."

Another trait of the New Steel Curtain is that it is exceptionally physical. The members of the unit go about their business with nastiness reminiscent of what the Steel Curtain displayed.

"We go out there, we just try to hit you and make you submit," Hampton said. "We don't do a lot of talking. We do it with our pads. We play hard, and we get after people."

The current Steelers also have arguably the greatest defensive coordinator in NFL history. Dick LeBeau, 71, is the mastermind behind a 3-4 scheme featuring a wide variety of blitzes and coverages that take full advantage of the considerable talent at his disposal. His players trust that LeBeau will always put them in the right position to succeed.

Harrison, Woodley and inside linebackers Farrior and Larry Foote thrive because the defense is geared toward the linebackers making the most plays. Their combination of athleticism and strength give LeBeau tremendous flexibility in rushing the passer and in pass coverage.

Harrison calls Farrior the "nuts and bolts" of the defense because he consistently makes the proper calls and adjustments after LeBeau relays them to the field.

"The scheme is 3-4," Harrison said. "You wouldn't put Tom Brady in an offense where he has to hand the ball off 70 times a game because that's not his strength. So you go and get players who are built to the strength of the scheme of the defense. And if your linebackers play (well in this defense), then normally you have a good day."

Like the Steelers' defense of 30-plus years ago, the players in this group have had a lot of good days. They're focused on having at least one more.

If they do, they'll be open to all sorts of accolades and comparisons with the defensive dominance that preceded them.

"I don't like to think about that right now because we've still got another game left to play," defensive tackle Chris Hoke said. "If we go out there and we lay an egg on Sunday, all those comparisons are down the drain. We've got to produce on Sunday, have a good showing against a high-potent offense, and then after the season, we can reflect on that and think, 'Hey, man, we're one of the best defenses of all time.'"

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