Steelers defense playing important role in turnaround
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell (31) tackles New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard (87) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Jared Wickerham)
PITTSBURGH (AP) Lawrence Timmons leapt into the air to snag an Eli Manning pass and Pittsburgh Steelers teammate James Harrison felt like he was in the middle of a flashback.
For a moment it was the 2009 Super Bowl all over again, the one where Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown on the final play of the first half helped the Steelers to a victory over Arizona and a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Running after Timmons as Timmons raced down the left half in the second quarter against the New York Giants on Sunday, Harrison felt a twinge of deja vu before the reality set in.
''I actually thought he was going to make it until I saw I was catching up with him and then I thought he wasn't going to make it,'' Harrison said with a laugh.
Hey, neither of them are kids anymore. The 30-year-old Timmons was eventually pushed out by New York running back Rashad Jennings after a 58-yard return . Three plays later, Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown in the back of the end zone for a touchdown to give Pittsburgh an 11-point lead and the defense all the wiggle room it would need to end the Giants' six-game winning streak with a clinical 24-14 victory .
''(The interception) was the biggest play to that point,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ''But, you know, you're going to have big plays in big moments as we get into December football. That's what it's about. It's about making those signature plays this time of year to get you out of the stadium. And that was a big one.''
The type Pittsburgh's rapidly improving defense is starting to make with regularity. Pushovers during a humbling four-game slide that took the swagger out of their 4-1 start, the Steelers are starting to do the pushing while ripping off decisive victories over Cleveland, Indianapolis and New York. Pittsburgh has given up just 30 points over its last 12 quarters – or five less than Dallas managed in a thrilling victory over the Steelers last month – and shown the kind of tenacity it lacked early in the season.
While a soft spot in the schedule that included a trip to the winless Browns and the Andrew Luck-less Colts helped, so has the maturation of rookies Sean Davis, Artie Burns and Javon Hargrave and a pass rush revitalized by Harrison.
The 38-year-old has five sacks in Pittsburgh's last five games and even when he's not getting to the quarterback, he's making an impact. He bulled his way past New York's Ereck Flowers on Sunday with Manning trying to throw out his own end zone, forcing Flowers to grab hold of Harrison's No. 92 jersey . The ensuing flag resulted in a safety that provided Pittsburgh an early momentum boost it never really relinquished.
It was just the first in a series of stands by the Steelers. In addition to the safety and Simmons' pick, the Steelers stopped the Giants on downs early in the third quarter to briefly preserve at two-touchdown lead and Davis collected the first interception of his career when the second-round pick stepped in front of a fourth-down heave by Manning in the final quarter.
While the safety allowed simply knocking the pass down would have been the smarter play, he didn't exactly feel the need to apologize.
''See ball, get ball,'' Davis said. ''Maybe next time (I'll knock it down). I had to get my first one. I wasn't going to drop that one.''
It was simply the latest step in Davis' evolution. He made a couple of key stops in the red zone against Indianapolis and is becoming an increasingly vital part of a secondary starting to play with some menace. Burns and Ross Cockrell kept Odell Beckham Jr. largely in check while the outcome was still in the balance, and Timmons' pick was as much about defensive coordinator Keith Butler's scheme as it was Timmons' raw ability.
''We kind of confused Eli,'' inside linebacker Ryan Shazier said. ''He thought we were in one thing and we were in another.''
Effectively disguising things against Cleveland's ever rotating stable of quarterbacks and Indianapolis backup Scott Tolzien is one thing. Doing it against a two-time Super Bowl champion is another.
''I think it's about the cohesion and the guys are gaining rhythm in that way, in terms of not only knowing what they're doing, but knowing what's going on around them,'' Tomlin said. ''I think that allows them to play harder and faster. And that's what we need.''
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