The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-2. With two road division games (albeit one against the Browns) and a trip to Arrowhead Stadium already in the books, that’s a perfectly acceptable record. That is, until you see that the offense, which should be in contention for the best unit in the NFL with running back Le’Veon Bell and a star-studded receiving corp, has scored only 118 points in six games. The two losses are against the Chicago Bears and at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Then again, the Steelers have a history of losing to bad quarterbacks (read – losing to Ryan Mallet in 2015).
Somehow, Pittsburgh has overcome its offensive struggles and ground out games behind a defense that has finally come into its own. After subtracting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s two pick-sixes against Jacksonville, the Steelers defense has allowed 14.8 points per game, which puts them on par with the league best Buffalo Bills defense, despite getting burned for two 50+ yard touchdowns on the season.
Pittsburgh has intercepted five passes (two by linebacker Ryan Shazier) and recovered three fumbles on the season. The defense has put two points on the board with a safety and is second in the NFL with 20 sacks (linebacker Vince Williams, the team leader, has 4), behind only the Jaguars. The Steelers are ranked third in yards per game allowed with 272 even though they have played 65 more snaps than the first place Denver Broncos and 42 more than the second place Cincinnati Bengals.
In 2008, Pittsburgh’s top-ranked scoring defense dominated the league. With defensive player of the year in linebacker James Harrison (oh, by the way, he’s still playing) joined by fellow linebackers James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, and LaMarr Woodley, plus safety Troy Polamalu (who did things like this that year), Dick LeBeau’s unit carried the team to Tampa Bay and even put up six points in the Super Bowl. Then they got old.
Polamalu, safety Ryan Clark, cornerback Ike Taylor, the whole defensive line, Woodley, and Farrior have retired. Timmons is in Miami. Harrison is 39 and took a year in Cincinnati (plus a short-lived retirement) before returning to Steel City. The Steelers had the oldest defense in the league in 2012, so Pittsburgh turned to the draft.
The rebuilding project came with some growing pains, predominantly from the young defensive backs that Pittsburgh drafted. Beyond getting repeatedly burned by the New England Patriots in the playoffs (because who doesn’t), the green secondary has made mistakes. Despite their obvious athleticism, young cornerbacks Artie Burns and Ross Cockrell and safety Sean Davis were regularly beaten for long touchdown passes that kept opponents in games.
This year, after trading away Cockrell to the New York Giants, the secondary has only given up one long touchdown while allowing only 153.3 passing yards per game, the lowest in the league.
While the secondary has only now realized its potential, Pittsburgh’s defense has always been reliant on athletic linebackers that can both blitz and play in pass coverage. No linebacker is a better example of this than Shazier. The Ohio State product flies all over the field for Pittsburgh, hitting hard and causing mayhem for opposing offenses. The rest of the young linebacking corp in the Steel City is of the same mould, drafted for its athleticism and trained how to play in the Steeler defense under former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.
Most recently, Pittsburgh went on the road and held a Chiefs offense that had previously scored 32.8 points per game to only 13. It did the same in the playoffs last January, preventing big plays from wide receiver Tyreek Hill and bottling up tight end Travis Kelce to hold two-seed Kansas City to 16. Maybe Pittsburgh just has Kansas City’s number, but by bottling up running back Kareem Hunt’s rushing yards, the Steelers put the ball in Alex Smith’s hands and said, “Beat us. You won’t.”
Pittsburgh’s defense is talented enough to choose who it wants to beat them, and, even with Big Ben coming off of a five interception performance, it can bottle up all but two quarterbacks in the NFL well enough to win.
Aaron Rodgers is off the schedule for the week 12 matchup, but Tom Brady still comes to Pittsburgh in week 15. These are the real tests for the Black and Gold, but there’s no question that this is the best defense the team has had this decade.
Photo: Pittsburgh Steelers