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AFTER BEING ASKED, ON DEC. 14, about the defense that had just held the Ravens to 202 yards—an NFL-record-tying 14th consecutive game limiting an opponent to less than 300 yards from scrimmage—Steelers cornerback William Gay boasted, "We want to defend each blade of grass." The little-known backup had just intercepted a Joe Flacco pass in the end zone in the game's waning minutes to preserve a 13-9 Week 15 victory at Baltimore, clinching the AFC North division title and earning the Steelers a much-needed playoff bye. And best of all, Gay's summation of Pittsburgh's defensive philosophy cut right to the reason for its success.
As the unofficial title of NFL's Best Team was bestowed upon the likes of the Patriots, Giants, Titans and even the Colts by the media and fans alike, there was little doubt about which team had the NFL's toughest defense. Attention to detail and toughness have been coach Mike Tomlin's trademarks since he took over as a 34-year-old in January 2007 and have translated into double-digit win totals and division titles each year. Along with veteran defensive guru Dick LeBeau, a holdover from the Bill Cowher regime, Tomlin's charges surrendered just 223 points in '08, the fewest in the league, by executing a two-pronged plan: Stop the run and pressure the quarterback.
Behind two of the league's top 10 pass rushers—NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley—Pittsburgh topped the AFC with 51 sacks, including 38� by the linebackers. That pressure helped the defense nearly double its interception total (11 in '07 to 20 in '08), with Troy Polamalu's seven leading the way.
On the ground, only Tomlin's former team, the Minnesota Vikings, allowed fewer rushing yards, but the Steelers held opposing ballcarriers to the fewest average yards per carry (3.29) and did not allow a 100-yard rusher in any game.
The offense wasn't nearly as effective, although it often proved to be just good enough, producing clutch plays to eke out six wins by seven points or fewer. Despite a separated throwing shoulder in Week 1, having his right hand stepped on, a concussion and 46 sacks, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger started every game for the first time in his five-year career, but his inconsistency showed in the Steelers' record. In 12 victories Big Ben threw 14 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, but in four losses he tossed just three touchdowns and was picked off 10 times.
Also disappointing to Pittsburgh fans was the league's 23rd-ranked running game, which was ravaged by the off-season free-agent defection of All-Pro left guard Alan Faneca and by injuries to running backs Willie Parker (sprained knee and torn labrum) and Rashard Mendenhall (broken collarbone).
Even with the league's 22nd-ranked offense, the Steelers lost only four games, none consecutively, and all four came against playoff-bound teams that averaged 11.3 wins. Despite playing the toughest schedule in recent memory—one that featured eight playoff teams from '07 and four of that year's division champions—Pittsburgh was the league's most consistent, and perhaps most overlooked, team, proving that defense still wins championships.