Steelers’ defense making splash plays in tight situations

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Every Pittsburgh Steelers practice on Thursdays and Fridays start with the same drill. They call it “Seven Shots.”

The ball is placed at the 2 and offensive coordinator Todd Haley and defensive coordinator Keith Butler get seven snaps to outsmart each other.

There is nothing on the line but daily bragging rights and the chance to get better in 2-point conversion situations. Which side has won more often is up for debate.

Linebacker Vince Williams insists the defense is “definitely up” on the season. Fullback Will Johnson allows there was a stretch when starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with a sprained left knee that the defense may have had the advantage, but no longer.

Either way, the results have been spectacular. The Steelers have already set an NFL record for 2-pointers this season, breaking the mark of six when a surprised Johnson caught one from Roethlisberger during a 45-10 demolition of Indianapolis two weeks ago. Johnson has the ball in his locker, all prepped and ready for whenever he gets a man cave to call his own.

Yet the constant focus on those short-field situations has produced another far less-hyped byproduct. While Pittsburgh’s revamped defense is susceptible to giving up massive chunks of yards, opponents getting into the end zone is another matter entirely.

The Steelers (8-5) moved into a tie with the New York Jets for the NFL lead in red-zone takeaways (six) when defensive end Stephon Tuitt stepped in front of a screen pass in the first quarter of last Sunday’s victory over the Bengals. The pick was also the 12th time this year Pittsburgh ended a goal-to-go situation on defense with something other than a touchdown.

Those kind of momentum-shifting stops have kept Pittsburgh in the thick of the AFC playoff race despite a series of injuries that could have derailed its season before it really started.

“It’s mostly because of our offense,” Tuitt said. “We know if we can get stops against them in practice, we can get stops against anybody. Our offense can score whenever it wants, really. When they don’t against us, it builds up our confidence when we’re playing other teams.”

It’s also why Butler can live with the mistakes of a pass defense that is 31st in yards allowed. When space gets tight, his players have found a way to win as many tussles as they lose. A renewed commitment to the blitz helps. So has Butler’s ability to confuse opposing quarterbacks. Pittsburgh baffled 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck two weeks ago, with the 16-year veteran admitting there were times when he wasn’t sure what was coming because it never appeared on tape.

“We’ve got to be able to change things up in the red zone, come up with stuff that maybe they haven’t seen on film from us,” Butler said. “Sometimes, we have to rush them and sometimes we have to drop (into coverage).”

Against the Colts, outside linebacker Jarvis Jones came up with his first career interception when he appeared ready to blitz from the edge, only to backpedal at the snap. He snared Hasselbeck’s slightly underthrown pass to prevent Indianapolis from taking an early lead. It was an athletic play by Jones that was the result of executing a heady game plan.

Tuitt’s stunning stop against the Bengals was more the byproduct of some quick thinking. When Cincinnati running back Gio Bernard made a weak attempt at blocking the 310-pound Tuitt to disguise the screen play, Tuitt instantly pivoted and stepped in front of Andy Dalton’s low dart.

“I don’t know if that’s coaching,” Butler said. “I think that’s more instinct than anything else.”

Dalton’s mistake became magnified a split-second later when Dalton fractured the thumb on his right (throwing) hand while trying to tackle Tuitt, perhaps altering the course of the season for both clubs.

Tuitt has no intention of looking that far ahead. Facing the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos (10-3) on Sunday is problem enough for now.

While Brock Osweiler has kept the Broncos above the fray filling in for injured Peyton Manning, Denver isn’t exactly putting opposing defenses on notice. The Broncos are averaging just 16.5 points over their last six games and failed to cross the goal line in last week’s 15-12 loss to Oakland, instead getting for four field goals that kept the Raiders in it long enough to put together a second-half rally.

The Steelers are planning for similar success this weekend. The offense got the better in Seven Shots on Thursday, in a competition that Williams acknowledged wasn’t close. That’s fine. He figures it will only make the defense sharper when Sunday afternoon rolls around.

“If we go against Ben Roethlisberger in seven shots in the end zone,” Williams said, “how do you think the results are going to be when you go against someone who is not Ben Roethlisberger?”

Notes: RB DeAngelo Williams (illness), LB Ryan Shazier (knee) and S Mike Mitchell (shoulder) did not practice on Thursday. … LB Bud Dupree (back) was limited.