While the story of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers has yet to be finished, one has to start thinking about this team in terms of history. Let’s face it, this team has one of, if not the best defense this league has seen in quite some time. They have a solid three-man front, great linebackers, and a secondary that has played well the whole season.
So when you think about legendary defenses, the two that come to mind right away are the 2000 Ravens and the 1985 Bears, both teams that won the Super Bowl with defenses that were simply outstanding. So do these Steelers match up with those two teams? If you take a look, you might be surprised that where they stand.
Let’s start with the 2000 Ravens. Remember they were not even a division champ in the AFC Central. They went 12-4 (a mark that the Steelers may go with a split in their last two games). They won four playoff games, topping the Broncos, Titans, Raiders and then Giants to win the Super Bowl. They were dominant in the playoffs, allowing 23 points in four games, including pitching a shutout in the Super Bowl on defense (the Giants scored on a kick return).
Ray Lewis was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and they had four players in the Pro Bowl, three on defense – Lewis, DT Sam Adams, and former Steelers safety Rod Woodson. They set several records during the season, including fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970). They also wrapped up the season #1 overall in both yards and points allowed.
The Ravens gave up 11 TD passes and 187.3 yards per game through the air. They collected 23 picks, and had 35 sacks. Rob Burnett led the team with 10.5 sacks, and Duane Starks had 6 picks, a team high. We’ll see below if the Steelers of 08 match up with this Ravens team that used their D to bring a title to Baltimore.
Now on to the 1985 Bears, who were of course led by the firey Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Forget about the “Super Bowl Shuffle” the song that the Bears cut during the season that became a cult classic, this team was as good as it got when it came to defenses that dominated from the word go.
They went 15-1, with their only loss of the entire season coming on a Monday night in Miami when Dan Marion torched them. To that point and from that game on, they never looked back, beating on teams with a physical defense that knocked out QB’s and more than made up for an offense that sometimes lacked the big play ability.
The Bears were 1st overall in defense, 1st against the run and 3rd against the pass. Richard Dent, who was MVP of Super Bowl XX, was the best player on the team that season, collecting 17 sacks and making life tough on QB’s all season long. Leslie Frazier led the team with six picks in what ended up being his last season after tearing his knee up returning a punt in the Super Bowl.
During the season they went through a stretch from October 13th to November 24th (7 games) where they pitched two shutouts (Dallas and Atlanta), and allowed a total of 39 points (5.5 points per game). Yes, they were that good. Also don’t forget in the playoffs they became the only team to date in NFL history to record two shutouts, back to back in home wins over the Giants (21-0) and Rams in the NFC Title Game (24-0).
They buried the overmatched New England Patriots in the Super Bowl 46-10 to win their first Super Bowl. Overall the defense allowed an impressive 11.5 points per game. Other than the 38 points allowed vs the Dolphins, the most points they allowed in any one game was opening day vs Tampa Bay when they had to scramble and comeback to win 38-28.
So that leads us to this current Steelers team, a team that with a win on Sunday will move to 12-3, and then with a win the final week of the season vs the terrible Browns would end the year 13-3, and with two home games in January in Pittsburgh have a clear shot at playing in their second Super Bowl in four seasons. The team is clearly led by a defense that going into Sunday has allowed 192 points (13.7 points per game), which as of now is higher than the Ravens and Bears teams talked about above.
They do though lead the league in total defense, allowing 75.8 yards per game on the ground and 163.3 yards per game through the air. They are 1st against the pass and 2nd against the run, trailing just the Vikings by about four yards. They are 2nd in the league with just five rushing TD’s allowed, and have allowed 11 TD passes, 3rd in the league.
They have 47 sacks, which is 2nd in the league next to the Cowboys with 53. They’ve picked off 18 passes and have two defensive TD’s, well below the league leader the Packers with seven. The Steelers have two players in the Pro Bowl – safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison, who will for sure be in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the year.
So is it fair to say that this year’s team stacks up against the 00 Ravens and 85 Bears? Probably not quite yet. The Bears were a defense that simply destroyed the opposition, and the 00 Ravens were so disruptive, they swarmed the ball and took advantage of every shot to find a way to score on defense and drive opposing offenses nuts.
Make no mistake though, this Steelers defense is good. Very good. They are likely the best defense both on stats and just on sheer ability since the “Steel Curtain” defenses of the 70’s. The Steelers D that was 1st back in 1994 was not even as good as this defense, and that was a unit that had players like Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake.
The jury will still be out on the final summary of this unit. If they beat the Titans and Browns, take home field and take care of business in the playoffs and then beat the best in the NFC in the Super Bowl, it could very well be mentioned in the same breath as those Ravens and Bears teams. For now though, let’s see how they play against another premier AFC team Sunday, and then when the pressure of the playoffs arrive, we’ll see if they can match up and compare with some of the great defenses of the past.