Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (94) runs after intercepting a pass by New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) during the first half of an NFL game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016. (Don Wright/AP)
PITTSBURGH -- The stat sheet shows Odell Beckhamgot 100 yards on the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense Sunday night. But, boy, that was a quiet, inconsequential 100 yards. Some of them came in garbage time. And he was basically the entire New York Giants offense in the Steelers'24-14 win, with the rest of the Giants gaining 151 yards.
That's how you know you're getting the best of your opponent. And the Steelers feel ready for anything after back-to-back-to-back gritty performances from the defense entering Sunday's matchup at Buffalo that will promise additional ice packs for everyone.
If you've followed the Steelers' secondary issues the last few years, containing Beckham & Co. shows serious growth, even if Giants QB Eli Manning was off target throughout.
"We're going to put hands on them," said cornerback Ross Cockrell on covering Beckham and the Giants receivers. "That's how we play Steelers defense."
Question the recent opponents -- and there's some validity to that, with the Browns and Colts a mess at quarterback -- but something is happening that has inspired the Steelers' defense and lessened the burden on coordinator Keith Butler.
The D gets sacks now. The secondary is breaking up passes it wouldn't have two months ago. And LB James Harrison is playing some of his best football at age 38, which makes him the perfect candidate to remind his locker room of this:
The Steelers' great defenses, the ones that really dominated, loved December football and hated everything else in front of them. Maybe that's why Harrison offers perspective to quell any potential self-adulation among his group, calling his team's performance Sunday "an all-right job." The Steelers are "nowhere near" where they need to be in a month, he added.
"This week, it doesn’t matter. It’s gone," Harrison said. "There’s no time to slap ourselves on the back."
Then Harrison attributed the recent success to a football truism that's become a cliché but rarely gets done properly -- all 11 players doing their job in unison.
In following that blueprint, several Steelers are playing their best football. Lawrence Timmons has returned to being an every-down linebacker and is making plays against the run and in coverage. His field-flipping interception in underneath coverage stripped all momentum from New York. Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis have brought out the best in each other since forming a tandem three weeks ago. Stephon Tuitt has elevated his play without Cam Heyward. There are others, too.
The Steelers feel they can drop back into coverage and beat teams while getting pressure with four up front. Manning went 8-of-9 with a touchdown against the blitz but 16-of-30 with a touchdown and two interceptions when the Steelers sent four or fewer.
Coach Mike Tomlin said December football is about "making those signature plays this time of year to get you out of the stadium" with a win.
In the last three weeks, the Steelers have 13 sacks and back-to-back games with at least two turnovers.
Beckham bolted downfield over and over, waiting for the Steelers cornerbacks to crack, but Artie Burns and Cockrell held up on the outside. Continue that, and the front seven will do the rest.
"We changed up who’s down, who’s back; we executed the game plan well tonight," Cockrell said. "Artie and I, we got a system going."