By Will Graves
December 17, 2014
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Vince Williams (98) and cornerback Antwon Blake tackle Falcons running back Steven Jackson (39) short of the end zone, stopping a drive in the red zone during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curtis Compton)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The numbers, at least byJames Harrison's impeccably high standards, aren't good enough. Not by a long shot.
Try to offer the occasionally snarly Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker an olive branch about the improvement in the team's run defense over the last two months and he swats it away.
''By no means is it where we would like it to be,'' Harrison said.
Maybe, but the Steelers (9-5) are closer to respectable than they were two months ago. After a sluggish start in which the front seven played as if stuck on a treadmill running in reverse, Pittsburgh is showing flashes of reponsible play.
The dividing line is pretty clear, at least on paper. The Steelers are 5-2 in their last seven games, allowing less than 100 yards rushing in all five wins and more than 100 yards on the ground in both losses. Whichever trend holds up on Sunday against Kansas City (8-6) will likely determine whether Pittsburgh ends the weekend with its first playoff berth in three years.
Pittsburgh is 11th in the NFL against the run, not bad until you consider the franchise ranked in the top 10 every season from 2004-12, a stretch that included three Super Bowl appearances and two championships.
Harrison, who has been limited by a knee injury the last two weeks, knows the difference between good and great. At the moment, he figures the Steelers are passable at best.
''We're going to continue to work at getting it better and getting our defense all-around better,'' Harrison said. ''Our location and assignments and just making plays when we in position to make plays.''
They're coming, but not with the frequency Harrison would like.
Pittsburgh has given up just two rushing touchdowns since Halloween, including a fluky 20-yard sprint by Cincinnati's Andy Dalton two weeks ago that proved only a footnote in a resounding 42-21 win over the Bengals. The large swaths of green grass opponents darted through in September and October have closed up of late as Pittsburgh's revamped group of linebackers has discovered some cohesion.
Injuries to Harrison, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier forced defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to giveArthur Moats, Vince Williams and Sean Spence extended playing time. Finding the right mix with so many new faces was not easy. Pittsburgh gave up 132 yards rushing four times in the season's first seven weeks, often putting up little resistance until running backs were well into the secondary.
''I feel like in the past we've got hurt because we were trying to do too much at certain times and we weren't as mentally disciplined as we need to be,'' Moats said. ''We've got to keep our eyes on our assignment. For us to go forward and go where we want to go, we need to continue to do that.''
Considering the way quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL's top-ranked offense is currently piling up yards and points, the Steelers don't need to shut opponents down so much as they simply need to slow them down.
They'll face perhaps their biggest test of the season from the Chiefs, who rely heavily on the electric running back tandem of Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis. The two have combined for 1,388 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. While Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith's inability to throw to a wide receiver in the end zone has become a punchline of sorts, Moats figures that just makes what the Chiefs are able to do even more impressive.
Even without an outside threat, Kansas City is in the thick of the postseason chase even though everyone knows exactly what is coming.
''The fact that they're still winning games and haven't been able to have passing touchdowns like that, it shows that they're a very resourceful team,'' Moats said.
One that figures to put whatever momentum the Steelers believe they've found to the test. With the defense as healthy as it has been all season, Pittsburgh is running out of time and excuses.
''Earlier in the year we were getting used to guys, guys didn't really know how each other are playing,'' Jones said. ''Guys are feeding off each other now and getting into the right places. I think it's all coming together.''
NOTES: Safety Mike Mitchell (groin), safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and tight end Matt Spaeth (elbow) did not practice. ... Center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) and cornerback Ike Taylor (shoulder/forearm) were limited.