Numbers game: Steelers defense is better than many fans believe

There has been a trend on social media during the 2019 NFL regular season that the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been fielding a very good defense. In fact, with the Steelers exiting Week 5 with a 1-4 record after an overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens, football fans who near-weekly claim to be “die-hard fans” of the Steelers have been critical of several individual players and the defense as a whole, including defensive coordinator Keith Butler. So, is there any validity to the idea that Pittsburgh’s defense is as poor as many fans believe they are? I’ll show how, in the numbers game, the Steelers defense is actually making its mark in the NFL this season and playing better than many think they are.

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Overall Ranking

As a whole, the Steelers defense is ranked third overall in the National Football League through five weeks of play in the 2019-20 regular season. They are ranked behind just the Carolina Panthers (2) and New England Patriots (1). Part of that ranking is due to turnover numbers. Another part is due to the number of pressures, quarterback hits, and sacks the Steelers are earning against opponents. To paint a bigger picture, let’s break down how they’re earning that Top 5 overall ranking.

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Getting to the Quarterback

The Steelers have long been nicknamed “Blitzburgh” by NFL fans and analysts. This year’s squad may not be “The Steel Curtain”, but they’ve been very successful at getting to opposing quarterbacks. With 19.0 total sacks, they rank third in the league. The top sack-earner on the roster is T.J. Watt who is tied at 3.5 with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Bud Dupree (3.0), Javon Hargrave (2.0), Devin Bush (1.0), Vince Williams (1.0), Tyson Alualu (1.0), and Mark Barron (0.5) have also contributed to that total. Fans were clamoring for more pressure and the Steelers have provided it.

Watt also leads the defense with ten quarterback hits (out of 37 total by the Steelers). That’s a lot by a guy who draws a ton of double-teams from opposing offenses. Watt has logged those hits against Tom Brady (3), Russell Wilson (1), Jimmy Garoppolo (2), Andy Dalton (3), and Lamar Jackson (5). The San Francisco 49ers have only allowed 11 quarterback hits through five weeks, while the Baltimore Ravens have allowed 20, the Patriots have allowed 23, the Seattle Seahawks have allowed 28, and the Cincinnati Bengals have allowed 30. The worst team in the NFL (in allowed sacks) is a tie between the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets (40). The Steelers’ offensive line has only allowed 13 quarterback hits and five sacks in comparison. Watt is just one quarterback hit off of the 2019 league leader, Za’Darius Smith, through five weeks of play.

Rk Player Tm Sk Solo Ast Comb TFL QBHits
1 Za’Darius Smith GNB 5 11 3 14 5 11
2 Shaquil Barrett TAM 9 16 6 22 7 10
3 Markus Golden NYG 4.5 9 10 19 3 10
4 Matt Judon BAL 3 14 5 19 4 10
5 Preston Smith GNB 5.5 12 7 19 4 10
6 T.J. Watt PIT 3.5 11 6 17 6 10

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Recoveries and Takeaways

The Steelers pulled the trigger during the 2019 NFL Draft and moved up to grab Devin Bush. The first-round move should be considered a major accomplishment by general manager Kevin Colbert, and the defensive coaching staff should be applauded for seeing Bush’s raw talent and getting him into the action as much as he has during his rookie season. Bush leads the Steelers defense in fumble recoveries, with three for 11 total yards. Watt has two recoveries to Barron’s single recovery (for 22 yards).

The Steelers have forced four fumbles on the season.

As for interceptions, the Steelers defense has grabbed six picks through five weeks. That has them tied for third in the league with the Philadelphia Eagles. Only the Patriots (11) and Green Bay Packers (7) have more. Bush, Barron, Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Watt all have an interception apiece. That shows an overall awareness across the entire defense, not just the defensive backfield.

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Then why aren’t the Steelers winning?

There isn’t a single answer to the question as to why Pittsburgh’s win-loss record is what it is. There are several answers and reasons. Losing veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season was hard, but his production before his injury was not at the level of 2018 or past successful seasons. There have been issues working young receivers into the lineup and getting them up to speed on routes and communication. There have been poor passes and dropped balls. Losing Mason Rudolph, to what could have been a very serious injury, against the Ravens was a low moment – not because he wasn’t playing well, but because few teams recover from that type of incident when it occurs in a game.

As for the defense, they were spending entirely too much time on the field until adjustments were made in the offensive playbook ahead of the Week 4 game against the Bengals. Once the offense started to click, they were able to put points on the board and allow their defensive players to catch their breath. Honestly, it’s difficult to stop teams that run the ball play-after-play when you’ve already been on the field 45 out of 60 minutes. That isn’t a conditioning issue. No amount of conditioning can prepare a player to be forced to play 100 percent of the snaps without a break. It’s also difficult in the scheme that the Steelers are running to ask the defensive backs to run downfield with receivers play-after-play when an opponent is chewing up the game clock with long passing drives.

Have there been times when the defense looked poor? Absolutely. There have been missed tackles (or people just tossing their arms out to try to knock an opponent down), broken coverage, mismatches, and momentum-killing penalties. There have been times when individual players on the defense have just simply been burned on a route or knocked on their rear end and washed out of a play. There have been times when I wanted to throw a bucket of rocks at Keith Butler and his assistants.

To say that the Steelers defense isn’t good, though, isn’t accurate. They’re competing above the level of all but two teams in the NFL defensively at this point in the season. There’s always room to improve, but it’s hard to ignore all the things that have been really, really good. The Steelers have the potential to be even better on defense than they are now if the team can get on track on offense and balance out who is on the field more.

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