PITTSBURGH — No, that’s not Mean Joe Greene, nasty Jack Lambert or give-not-an-inch Mel Blount out there playing defense for the motivated Pittsburgh Steelers. It only seems like it’s 1976 again.
The Steelers needed two quarterbacks to throw for all of 21 yards Sunday at Tennessee, the fewest they’ve had in a victory since at least 1960, according to STATS LLC. And a third quarterback could be on the way Sunday. Their offense hasn’t scored a touchdown in regulation yet this season, and they’ve been outpassed by nearly 2-to-1 — normally, a scenario that spells defeat in the increasingly pass-driven NFL.
To be more reflective of the way they’re scuffling on offense, perhaps the Steelers’ statistics should reflect feet-gained passing, not yards gained.
Not that it’s mattered. With their defense performing like a 21st-century version of the Steel Curtain, the Steelers (2-0) are assured of getting through quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s potentially season-ruining four-game suspension with no worse than a 2-2 record.
Even 4-0 seems possible, with a road game Sunday at Tampa Bay (2-0) that could have the feel of a home game given how many Steelers fans already have purchased tickets, and the Ravens (1-1) following at home a week later.
Not many in the NFL predicted that, and that seems to anger a team that took umbrage at suggestions its season might be over before its franchise quarterback returned.
“We knew everybody was going to count us out, having Ben out,” linebacker James Farrior said. “They think they can’t win without Ben, but that just gives us a little more motivation. Mike Tomlin has been (mad) the last couple of weeks, so he’s been taking it out on us — and we’ve been taking it out on other teams.”
Obviously, Titans star Chris Johnson ran up against the wrong team as he unsuccessfully tried to extend his streak of consecutive 100-yard games to 13. Johnson had an 85-yard touchdown run called back by a penalty, but otherwise did little. He finished with 34 yards on 16 carries as Pittsburgh won 19-11 by forcing seven turnovers.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison suggested Johnson could have gotten his 100 yards, but only if the Titans had given him 40 carries. Michael Turner was equally unsuccessful the week before, gaining 42 yards on 19 carries as the Steelers held Atlanta without a touchdown while winning in overtime, 15-9.
Now Johnson and Turner know how Archie Griffin, Rickey Young, Tommy Reamon and a bunch of other running backs felt trying to gain yards against the last Steelers team to weather such adversity without its star quarterback.
The 1976 Steelers started 1-4 after winning the Super Bowl the previous two seasons, and their year seemed to be over as quarterback Terry Bradshaw couldn’t start six games due to neck and wrist injuries. They responded by going 6-0 with rookie quarterback Mike Kruczek starting, and they returned to the AFC championship game for the fourth time in five seasons.
Those Steelers accomplished it with the most sustained stretch of defensive excellence by any recent-era NFL team, shutting out five teams — three in a row — while holding three others to a combined four field goals. Only one team scored in double digits against them during their final nine games, and four teams were held to single digits in first downs.
That ’76 team was told it couldn’t be done, and the defense responded even when the offense couldn’t; Kruczek didn’t throw a touchdown pass all season. These Steelers are trying to follow a similar script, even if they’re doing it with more quarterbacks.
With Dennis Dixon (knee) uncertain for Sunday and No. 4 quarterback Charlie Batch ineffective against Tennessee, Byron Leftwich may start against the Bucs, his team a year ago. Even though Leftwich wasn’t on the roster Sunday after being released the day before to create a roster spot for a defensive lineman.
Who dreamed all this up?
Apparently, Tomlin and Dick LeBeau. The 73-year-old defensive coordinator used training camp to remind his players they were being written off as too old — all but two starters will be 30 or older by next season — because the Steelers lost five times last season when the defense couldn’t hold leads in the fourth quarter. That team seemed to be in perfect position to make the playoffs with a 6-2 record, only to lose its next five.
“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder this year because of how things went down last year with our five-game losing streak,” nose tackle Chris Hoke said. “So we have something to prove. Sometimes when people wrote that we’re not going to be very good or maybe they’ll go 2-2 or 1-3 when Ben’s out, that’s a lot of the stuff that (makes us mad). For people to go out and say, ‘Hopefully, they’ll be 2-2, we think that’s a knock on us a little bit.’ “