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. A third quarterback could be on the way Sunday. Their offense hasn't scored a touchdown in regulation yet, and they've been outpassed by nearly 2-to-1 — normally, a scenario that spells defeat in the increasingly pass-driven NFL.
To reflect 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.
"It means a lot because people thought we'd be 0-2," cornerback Bryant McFadden said Monday.
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) 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 failed to extend his streak of consecutive 100-yard games to 13. Johnson had an 85-yard touchdown run called back by a penalty, but managed only 34 yards on 16 carries as Pittsburgh won 19-11 by forcing seven turnovers.
Linebacker James Harrison suggested Johnson could have gotten his 100 yards, but only if he had gotten 40 carries. The week before, former All-Pro Michael Turner was held to 42 yards on 19 carries as Atlanta couldn't get into the end zone while losing in overtime 15-9.
"Coach Tomlin wants a violent team that plays within the rules and is aggressive," McFadden said. "We want to be the attackers. We don't drive the speed limit, and we don't wear seat belts when we're out there playing."
Against this defense, hitting 55 — in yards, that is — is proving difficult. Johnson and Turner now understand how Archie Griffin, Rickey Young, Tommy Reamon and numerous 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. They had five shutouts — three in a row — and held 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.
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?
Dick LeBeau, in part. The 73-year-old defensive coordinator keeps reminding his players they were being written off as too old — all but two starters will be 30 or older by next season — after they couldn't hold leads in the fourth quarter five times last season. After starting 6-2, the Steelers lost their 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.' "