PITTSBURGH (AP) — Heading into December, the numbers are gaudy.
Second in sacks.
Third against the pass.
Fourth in total yards allowed.
Fourth in points against.
Fifth in interceptions.
They are the kind of numbers that back up Mike Tomlin's words back in July, when the Pittsburgh Steelers coach said as training camp opened that he felt the pieces were in place for his defense to be a "dominant" group.
There's another number, however, that is kind of in the way: Nine. That's the number of passing plays of 40 yards or more the AFC North leaders have allowed this season, including five in the past three weeks.
Only four clubs have allowed more.
"I wish I could plug up those leaks if we could," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. "We obviously don't want to do that - give people big plays and stuff like that. We can't afford to do that. We're not going to win a world championship doing that."
And it's a Super Bowl title — and only a Super Bowl title — that will serve as the metric on which the Steelers (9-2) will judge their season.
Controlling the game for long stretches is nice. Yet all the sacks and all the picks celebrated by a team selfie won't matter if they're interspersed by the occasional sprint to the end zone staring at the back of an opponent's number.
"We getting closer and closer," outside linebacker Bud Dupree said. "Right now we're just trying to put all the pieces together because it's fitting to get real. So these next couple months are the most important months of the year."
With Cincinnati (5-6) and star receiver A.J. Green looming on Monday night and Tom Brady and New England looming on Dec. 17, this might be the time for Pittsburgh to pick up the pace. The Steelers allowed three long scores in three very different ways last week against backup Green Bay quarterback Brett Hundley.
Making just his fifth career start, Hundley kept Pittsburgh guessing. He made Steelers rookie linebacker T.J. Watt bite on a pump fake on Green Bay's first drive and found Randall Cobb all alone for a 39-yard score.
Hundley later flipped a screen pass that running back Jamaal Williams turned into a 54-yard catch-and-run through a sea of bad angles and missed tackles that gave the Packers an early lead. Hundley struck again early in the third quarter, finding Davante Adams on a double move for a 55-yard score. Three Steelers had a chance to bring Adams down and whiffed.
Pittsburgh escaped anyway thanks to wide receiver Antonio Brown's brilliance and four touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger. Yet getting bailed out by the offense is a formula they'd prefer to not have to rely on in January and, they hope, February.
"If you beat us because you schemed us or whatever or you were just physically better on that play, that's one thing," cornerback Coty Sensabaugh said. "We don't want to beat ourselves and that's what we've done the past couple weeks on some plays."
Tomlin likened his team's issues to "hiccups." And they are, at least for now.
"It's putting us in positions where we could lose games so those things like I mentioned after the game have to happen," Tomlin said. "They have to disappear yesterday. It's not one particular guy, it's popcorn. It's happening here and there and different circumstances and situations."
Tomlin thinks coaching will help. So would trying to make a routine tackle instead of trying to, as Butler put it, "knock the crap out of guys."
"In the NFL if those guys see you coming, you try to knock the crap out of him, they're not going to let you, they're going to dodge you," Butler said.
"We talk about trying to get to the ball as quick as we can, get our shoulders over our feet, make sure we wrap, tackle and drive. ... We've just got to tackle better. We all know that."