De­fense’s to-do list starts with: “Step up and play”

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Ed Bouchette

pitts­burgh» For all its faults, for all the yards it al­lowed this sea­son, for the lead it let slip away in Cincin­nati, the Steel­ers’ de­fense did what it of­ten has done through­out this sea­son — stood tall when it counted. Along the way, it ac­com­plished a feat un­seen since the Steel­ers’ 1970s Su­per Bowl dy­nasty.

Ryan Shazier’s se­cond forced fum­ble of Satur­day’s play­off game at Cincin­nati — he ripped the ball from Ben­gals half­back Jeremy Hill at Pitts­burgh’s 20 with 1:23 left in what seemed to be a los­ing cause for the Steel­ers — has be­come the norm for their de­fense.

Seven times the Steel­ers forced turnovers in their red zone in the reg­u­lar sea­son, tied for the most in the NFL and most by them since their 2005 Su­per Bowl team. That forced fum­ble and Ross Cock­rell’s re­cov­ery at the 9 was the fi­nal big play on a night the Pitts­burgh de­fense did some­thing that hadn’t been seen in the team’s post­sea­son his­tory in 40 years.

The Steel­ers held an op­po­nent score­less for the first three quar­ters of a post­sea­son game for the first time since the 1975 AFC cham­pi­onship game, when they beat Oak­land 1610 at Three Rivers Sta­dium and went on to win their se­cond Su­per Bowl.

“It’s the time of the year where you have to step up and play,” said vet­eran linebacker James Har­ri­son.

They did just that. The Steel­ers forced five fum­bles and re­cov­ered three, and Ant­won Blake in­ter­cepted a pass he re­turned 35 yards. Blake’s in­ter­cep­tion led to a field goal, as did two of their fum­ble re­cov­er­ies. The third forced fum­ble was Shazier’s first that saved a likely score when he hit half­back Gio­vani Bernard, who lost the ball at Pitts­burgh’s 25 near the end of the third quar­ter.

Those four take­aways tied for the Pitts­burgh de­fense’s best out­put. While the Steel­ers al­lowed an av­er­age of 363.1 yards per game in the reg­u­lar sea­son — rank­ing 21st in the league — the Ben­gals man­aged just 279 against them Satur­day.

“I felt like the de­fense did a good job,” said Shazier, who played the best game of his two-year ca­reer while lead­ing the Steel­ers with two passes bro­ken up and 13 tack­les — nine more than his clos­est team­mate. “Ev­ery­body’s trust­ing each other re­ally well. Our chem­istry is re­ally good. We know we can trust the guy next to us.”

Shazier’s late forced fum­ble came at a time coach Mike Tom­lin ac­knowl­edged was “dire” for his team. Ben­gals linebacker Von­taze Bur­fict had just in­ter­cepted Landry Jones at the Steel­ers’ 26 with 1:36 left. All the Ben­gals had to do was run three plays and kick a field goal to go up by four with about a minute left or get a first down and run out the clock as the Steel­ers used all three of their time­outs.

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