Updated: 08/14/2014 11:32 PM
Created: 08/14/2014 10:42 PM WHEC.com
By: Associated Press
Brandon Spikes spent four years watching the rapidly maturing Buffalo Bills defense from afar.
To be honest, Spikes prefers his current view, the one that lets Buffalo's newest middle linebacker work behind one of the best front four in the NFL.
Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes combined for 41 sacks last season, most than all but a dozen teams in the league.
Asked how to stop a group that produced three Pro Bowlers (with Hughes and his 10 sacks the lone exception) Spikes just shrugged his shoulders.
"If you can get at those guys you might have a chance," he said. "But if you let them do what they want to do then you're going to have a long day."
It's a sentiment opponents typically echoed about the Pittsburgh Steelers for years. Maybe not so much anymore.
James Harrison? Waiting for the phone to ring. LaMarr Woodley? In Oakland. Brett Keisel? Looking for work. Aaron Smith? Retired. Casey Hampton too.
The menace and the flash the Steelers produced with regularity during their run to three Super Bowl appearances between 2005 and 2010 have only come sporadically the past two seasons.
It's not a coincidence mediocrity - at least by Pittsburgh's typically high standards - followed.
The Steelers have been a .500 team each of the past two years thanks in part to a defense that doesn't get to the quarterback or the football with regularity.
Pittsburgh was 25th in the NFL in sacks (24) and 27th in takeaways (20) last year and fell outside the top 10 in total defense for the first time this millennium.
That's not the Steeler Way, and they know it.
"We understand the guys who came before us and we understand what we have to hold up," Pittsburgh defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. "It just starts every day here, whether it's stopping the run or reacting to the pass, getting off blocks, whatever we have to do we have to make plays this year."
The kind of plays Buffalo's defense makes out of habit. The Bills finished second in the league with 57 sacks and tied for eighth with 29 turnovers created.
Of course, Buffalo also went 6-10 to extend its playoff drought to 14 years and counting, the longest active streak in the NFL.
The Bills and St. Louis Rams were the only two teams to rank in the top 10 in sacks and not finish with a winning record.
And the players know the number in the win column - not the accolades - serve as the ultimate arbiter between promising and prominent.
"It's great to be a dominant defense, but you can't be dominant if you're not winning games," Buffalo safety Aaron Williams said. "We need to do a better job of stopping other teams in different types of situations."
Bills general manager Doug Whaley - who spent a decade in the Steelers front office - believed this week's joint practices with Pittsburgh would give his team a chance to see how one of the league's elite franchises operates. In at least one area Buffalo appears to be every bit the Steelers' equal.
These days it's the Bills defense playing with the kind of swagger that used to be Pittsburgh's exclusive domain.
"They're freaks man," Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. "You've got Mario Williams on one side and Jerry Hughes on the other side and they have distinguishing characteristics."
The biggest one being tenacity. At 6-foot-2 and 253 pounds, Hughes looks more like a safety than a player who lines up across the line of scrimmage from massive offensive tackles who outweigh him by plenty. Yet Hughes gives the Bills an electric bookend to Williams.
"I think he's just relentless to the ball," Spikes said of Hughes.
A relentlessness Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau would like to see from his group more often this fall.
Press LeBeau on why his unit has failed to produce the splash plays that often change games and seasons and the Hall of Famer doesn't use the youth movement as part of the problem.
"We have been short in that area, but I don't think youth has anything to do with that," he said. "I'll take youth any day if they go the right direction."
Consider it a message to the core of 20-somethings that include linemen Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier. All four have been drafted in the past four years. All four are expected to help bring back the chaos that used to be a staple of LeBeau's frenetic 3-4 scheme.
There were signs of progress during the workouts with the Bills, who struggled at times to give quarterback EJ Manuel time.
"It's the typical Steeler defense," Buffalo guard Kraig Urbik. "They were all over the place."