Through the first three weeks of the season, the Steelers defense looked like the "old and slow" tag had finally caught up with them. As fans, we had spent all of last season trying to shirk that tag and justify the season-opening loss to Baltimore as an outlier rather than an indication of a trend. Through the first three weeks this year, the Steelers defense gave up over 300 yards twice and allowed Carson Palmer and the Oakland Raiders to put up 34 points. Things didn't get much better after a Thursday Night loss in Tennessee. But since then, the defense hasn't given up more than 17 points to any opponent (the Giants got 6 points off a fumble return, so you can't charge that TD to the defense).
The Steelers defensive line started slow and it showed as Oakland and Tennessee's offensive lines were able to control the game. The line has started coming around as of late, especially Ziggy Hood who has been getting pressure and batting down balls. Brett Keisel hasn't been as good as he was last year, and Casey Hampton seems to have gotten better as the season has gone along. One of the biggest question marks for this unit is the snap counts. The starting three (Keisel, Hampton, Hood) are getting proportionally more snaps than the top reserves (Steve McLendon and Cam Heyward) even though McLendon and Heyward have looked better than the starters at times. Hopefully McLendon and Heyward see some more snaps as the season moves along.
If you follow the team from a distance, you probably think that Running Backs have been the most injured unit on the team. However, the linebacking corps has been hit just as hard. This unit was in such dire straights at the beginning of the season with both James Harrison and Jason Worlids injured that Chris Carter started the opener in Denver. LaMarr Woodley has been battling a hamstring injury for the last few weeks and reserves Brandon Johnson and Stevenson Sylvester have both had on-again-off-again injuries. That's not to mention rookie Sean Spence who was lost for the season when he blew up his knee in the preseason. Despite that, the unit has started to come around. Lawrence Timmons has begun to return to his 2010 form and Larry Foote is playing the most fundamentally sound ball of his career. Harrison and Woodley aren't getting the sack numbers you'd like to see, but they have been getting pressure and keeping contain (especially on outside running plays).
Ike Taylor had a brutal start to the season but has rebounded nicely over the last few games, capping it off with an interception and pass defended against the Giants that earned him Defensive Player of the Week honors. Keenan Lewis has been the biggest surprise in the secondary and he now leads the team with 15 passes defended - with 11 of them coming over the last four weeks. His 15 Passes Defended ties him for the league lead with Bears corner Tim Jennings. Everyone chuckled in the preseason when Keenan proclaimed he was going to have a Pro Bowl year, but if he keeps playing like this and adds a few interceptions he may get consideration.
The Steelers have struggled through injuries at the safety position as well this season. Ryan Clark missed the opener in Denver because of his sickle cell trait then most of the Redskins game because of concussion-like symptoms. Troy Polamalu has been working back through a calf injury and backup Will Allen seems to always be getting banged up during the game but he has always been able to return. Allen has solidified Troy's safety spot and supplanted Ryan Mundy as the top backup. Allen obviously isn't Troy, but he has played good football on the back end and helped to shore up the pass defense.