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    Steelers’ revived defense rising to occasion with Patriots ahead



    USA Today Sports’ Lorenzo Reyes makes his picks for this weekend’s AFC and NFC Championship games.
    USA TODAY Sports

    PITTSBURGH — Championship defense has a deeply rooted legacy in western Pennsylvania. Like the local steel industry, however, it was starting to feel like a relic of a bygone era.

    But with a mixture of blossoming first-round talent, savvy veterans and eager rookies, the Pittsburgh Steelers D has rebounded nearly as impressively as the city’s economy.

    “There’s a responsibility because there’s such a history with this team — because you’ve had so many great players on all three levels,” defensive end Cam Heyward told USA TODAY Sports.

    “You’re like, ‘Wow, I’m putting on a Steelers jersey.’ You want to live up to that and all the hype that comes along with it.”

    That’s been a challenge as the team transitioned from longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau to former linebackers coach Keith Butler in 2015, while several mainstays — Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Larry Foote among them — retired or left. At the same time, the club was investing serious draft capital to infuse fresh talent, spending first-round picks on Heyward, linebackers Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree and corner Artie Burns since 2011.

    They haven’t reminded anyone of the Steel Curtain so far. And after annually ranking as one of the NFL’s 10 best overall defenses from 2000 to 2012,…

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