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Make a stop, win a game. During their remarkable 2008 season, the Steelers limited opponents to a league-low 31.4% conversion rate on third down. Last season they ranked 28th at 42.3%. "We strayed a little bit from what the defense called for," says linebacker James Harrison. "A lot of guys were pressing, trying to do too much, not taking care of their responsibility because they were too concerned about helping somebody. That's when teams started to hit plays. And not having Aaron and Troy—that was 50 percent of it."
Polamalu is arguably the most valuable defensive player in the league. Because of his high football IQ, coordinator Dick LeBeau allows him to freelance. Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber took a look at Polamalu on film during the week and marveled at how the eighth-year strong safety confuses quarterbacks. He pointed to a sequence in Pittsburgh's opener against the Falcons.
Atlanta appeared to have momentum after driving for the tying field goal with 3:24 to play. After the Falcons had forced a punt to regain possession with 1:45 to go in regulation, quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back from his own 21 and looked for wideout Roddy White on a 10-yard sideline route. It was the correct read for Ryan based on the coverage he saw; except that Polamalu was playing his usual cat-and-mouse game. He came in at a full sprint and intercepted the pass to force overtime. Pittsburgh won on a 50-yard touchdown run by Rashard Mendenhall.
"That's just him understanding the offense and what it's trying to do," marveled Barber. "He's something."
Polamalu made another highlight-reel play the next week when he leaped clear over the line of scrimmage on first-and-goal from the one and sacked Titans quarterback Kerry Collins for a one-yard loss. "I kind of looked up, and said, 'Dude, that was a great play,'" Collins said afterward. "What can you say?"
With Polamalu and Smith healthy, the Steelers are in familiar territory, atop the league standings in scoring defense through Sunday. They're surrendering just 11 points a game, and even that is deceiving considering that in each of the past two weeks they allowed a touchdown in the final two minutes when the game was in hand. Take away those TDs and Pittsburgh is surrendering just 6.3 points per game. It has also forced 10 turnovers.
"We're playing as good as I've seen in a while—just as good as two years ago," says Farrior. "We're shutting teams down. We don't give them a chance to do too much. We focus on the running game and stopping their Number 1 runner; then we try to make the quarterback beat us."
The perception was that if the Steelers did lose during the first month of the season, it would be because their quarterback, not the other team's, beat them. Initially, veteran Byron Leftwich was supposed to fill in for Roethlisberger, but Leftwich sprained his left MCL in the preseason finale and was sidelined for at least four weeks. Mobile third-year QB Dennis Dixon started the first two games, but he went down with torn knee ligaments in Week 2 and will be out for two months.
That opened the door for Batch, a 13-year veteran whose last start was on Dec. 30, 2007, in a 27--21 loss at Baltimore. During 2010 training camp Batch was limited to throwing in seven-on-seven and one-on-one drills. The only work he got with the full first- or second-team offense was when one of the quarterbacks ahead of him was tired.
But Batch showed little rust on Sunday. Though he threw interceptions on his first and last passes, he finished 12 of 17 for 186 yards and three touchdowns. Batch capitalized on the Bucs' excessive attention to the Steelers' running game—which behind the emerging Mendenhall is averaging 150 yards a game (compared with 112.1 in 2009)— and the inexperience of safety Cody Grimm (a rookie seventh-round pick who was making his first start in place of the suspended Tanard Jackson) by using play-action to find Wallace for scores of 46 and 41 yards.