Gary Pinkel's best teams at Missouri have been all about the points. This year it's a lot more about the stops from the tough-minded unit led by a gruff former Marine.

Defensive players draw inspiration from long-time Pinkel aide Dave Steckel, who leads by example. He's among five finalists for assistant coach of the year, the lone defensive coordinator in the bunch.

This season, he's gamely prowled the sideline with an injured hip that probably needs replacing. Last year, the 57-year-old Steckel returned quickly from surgery for a torn triceps courtesy from a collision with Michael Sam.

"He works so hard," linebacker Michael Scherer said. "He's crazy. He's been limping around and falling over all the time on a bad hip, that's just how much he's willing to deal with the pain."

Last week, the 14th-ranked Tigers (10-2) threw a second-half shutout against Arkansas in the victory that clinched a second straight SEC Eastern Division title. They held Central Florida and Kentucky to 10 points, Florida to 13 and Arkansas to 14.

They've scored just enough to win six in a row. The players top-ranked Alabama probably worry about most, though, are pass-rushing ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden — both of them likely early NFL draft picks.

"I don't think anything's a strength, I just coach," said Steckel, who's also associate head coach and coaches linebackers. "I don't think that way. What's that old quote, 'The strength of the wolf is in the pack.'"

The improvement has been remarkable just from last year.

Missouri is first or second in the SEC in every major defensive category in league play and held three opponents — Toledo, South Carolina and Georgia — to season lows in yards.

The Tigers are 16th in the nation in total defense, up from 81st. Points allowed is 13th best, up from 34th. Pass defense is 55 yards stingier at 35th, way up from 107th. The Tigers are sixth in the nation in sacks and eighth in tackles for loss after ranking 12th and ninth last year.

"Our defense has gotten better and better, there's no question about it," Pinkel said. "We're playing as consistently on defense as I've had since I've been a head coach."

Numerous former Missouri defensive standouts have thrived in the NFL, including Aldon Smith and Justin Smith (49ers), William Moore (Falcons), Kony Ealy (Panthers), Sheldon Richardson (Jets), Ziggy Hood (Jaguars) and E.J. Gaines (Rams).

This year, they've got the standouts and the depth.

Ray leads the SEC with 13 1/2 sacks and 20 1/2 tackles for loss. Golden, hampered part of the year by a hamstring injury, has 8 1/2 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in 11 games.

Linebacker Kentrell Brothers leads the team with 102 tackles and led the way in seven of eight SEC games. Against Arkansas, he had 11 tackles and a forced fumble recovered by Golden to clinch the victory.

Scherer, a sophomore, reached 100 tackles last week, too. He chuckles at predictions Kentucky was due for a big day offensively against Missouri because it had topped 50 points the previous game, just how Alabama is perceived as unstoppable after scoring 55 to beat Auburn last week.

"I'm happy for our kids," Steckel said. "They've played their butts off."