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