PITTSBURGH (AP) -Fittingly enough for a team that wears the color predominantly on its uniforms, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are the new gold standard for NFL defenses.
The cast of characters has shifted from Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount to Casey Hampton, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Troy Polamalu. Yet this current-day Steel Curtain looks to be playing at a level that can take a team far into January.
Or February.
Teams periodically go into slumps or funks in a league where last week's rising star can quickly become this week's Mr. Irrelevant. Not this defense. The Steelers (9-3) have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher or a 300-yard game, and they have given up 10 or fewer points in four of their last five games.
Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel went into Sunday's 33-10 loss to Pittsburgh off successive 400-yard passing games, yet managed only 169 yards while being intercepted twice and sacked five times. The Patriots were only 1-for-13 on third downs. And New England's sole touchdown resulted from a turnover-created drive that began at the Steelers 14-yard line.
``The defense, well, they were their usual selves,'' coach Mike Tomlin said.
If only because the superlative has become the commonplace with Pittsburgh's defense.
``It was unbelievable,'' Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. ``You get to the sidelines, put your coat on, your hat on and, all of a sudden, you're ready to go back on the field.''
Harrison, who shares Hall of Famer Lambert's alma mater (Kent State) and nasty disposition, had two sacks and caused two fumbles despite playing with a back injury. Harrison has 14 sacks and is one off Mike Merriweather's 1987 team record with four games to play.
With 25 1/2 sacks between them, Harrison and Woodley, a first-year starter, already have the most of any tandem in team history. Polamalu added an interception, giving him one in three consecutive games and a league-high six, and linebacker Lawrence Timmons had an 89-yard fumble return.
``It feels real good, but that's not the end of it,'' said Harrison, who also has six forced fumbles. ``We're trying to raise that total to 30-plus.''
The Steelers seem to get regularly overlooked in Super Bowl speculation, partly because of Tennessee's 11-1 record in the AFC, yet history shows that teams with good defenses often take control in the postseason.
``I think we are kind of a nicely boring team,'' defensive end Aaron Smith said. ``We just come out and find a way to win.''
w good has this defense been - and how consistent?
Only the Colts have scored more than two touchdowns on a defense that is giving up the fewest yards rushing, passing and overall, and the fewest points in the NFL. No NFL defense has led the league in all three yardage categories since the 1991 Eagles, but that Philadelphia team did not lead in fewest points.
``We want to be the No. 1 defense at the end of the year,'' safety Ryan Clark said.
Pittsburgh fell behind 7-0 and 10-3 on Sunday, only to score the next 30 points. Nothing new there: the Steelers have won all five games in which their opponent has scored first, including the last three.
Even the best of the 1970s Steel Curtain defenses, which dominated the league longer than any in history that kept most of its starters intact, did not lead the NFL in so many major categories.
The 1976 Steelers had three consecutive shutouts and did not permit a single point in five of their final nine games, a stretch in which only one opponent (Houston, in a 32-16 Steelers win) scored in double figures. One Steelers opponent scored six points and two others scored three.
That 1976 defense gave up the fewest points, yards rushing and total yards in the NFL but was third in fewest yards passing.
nly three teams have totaled even 260 yards. Five have been held to 221 or fewer by a defense permitting an average of 238 yards, easily the lowest in the league.
``Week in and week out, that's always the major point, to allow no big plays,'' cornerback William Gay said.
The consistency, Clark said, is partly the result of 71-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's ingenuity and the confusion he causes by constantly changing pass rushers and the angles from which they blitz.
``I think he's been smart,'' Clark said. ``He calls a defense that allows someone to be over the top in some capacity.''
This defense needs to be playing at a high level given a schedule that brings Dallas (8-4) to Pittsburgh on Sunday, followed by road games against Baltimore (8-4) and Tennessee (11-1). The Steelers lead Baltimore by one game in the AFC North and are No. 2 overall in the AFC.
``Our greater challenges, of course, lie ahead,'' Tomlin said.
Of course, the Cowboys, Ravens and Titans must be thinking the Steelers' defense lies ahead, too.

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