The Pittsburgh Steelers have dealt with injuries, changes in key personnel on the field, loss of players due to injury, the passing of a coach and the moving-on of another coach that was truly impactful to this team, issues with players who weren't sure they wanted to be with the team anymore, scrutiny by the media, and even harsher scrutiny from their own fans and fans of other NFL teams. It might be enough to make any other team lay down the ball and just give up. Instead, the Steelers continue to battle every week, pretty or not, for the next win. There was some notion that this year's Steelers team had a great defense but not many could have predicted that they'd continue to post some of the spectacular stats that they have.
Love him or hate him, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has gathered his coaching staff around him - with general manager Kevin Colbert - to somehow keep Pittsburgh fielding a team that is willing to compete, week-in and week-out. As Paul Zeise (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Columnist) said this weekend,
"The fact that the Steelers control the second wild card considering all the injuries, issues, backups, practice squad signings speaks volumes about the job Mike Tomlin has done this season. The Steelers have had every excuse to fold and yet they are fighting for a playoff spot."
It hasn't been the offense that has been behind the wheel during the 2019-20 NFL regular season, but a Steelers defense that has continued to find ways to improve. They're far from perfect but how many teams are fielding perfect defenses? The answer: none.
The Steelers were able to hold the Cincinnati Bengals to just 244 net yards of offense, allowed the opponents to convert just two-of-twelve third downs on offense, forced nine punts, and then added two more takeaways to their already outstanding total for this season (through twelve weeks of play).
This defense really does start upfront. Defensive captain Cam Heyward recorded one sack on Sunday to bring his season total to 6.5. Heyward also logged four quarterback hits and a tackle for a loss. For the season, Heyward has 16 quarterback hits and eight tackles for a loss of yardage.
#Steelers OLB T.J. Watt’s Defensive POY credentials:
-11.5 sacks (1st in AFC, 3rd in NFL)
-5 forced fumbles (T-1st in NFL)
-25 QB hits (1st in NFL)
-3 fumble recoveries (T-3rd in NFL)
-Has at least a half-sack in 8 consecutive games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL.
— Burt Lauten (@SteelersPRBurt) November 25, 2019
Meanwhile, outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt have had stellar seasons of their own. Dupree has logged 6.0 sacks to Watt's 11.5. The Steelers are the only NFL team this season to be able to boast that they have three different players with a minimum of 6.0 sacks outside of the Los Angeles Rams (Aaron Donald has 8.0, Clay Matthews has 7.0, and Dante Fowler has 6.5).
Dupree can be credited with a game-saving strip-sack and recovery against the Bengals, and there have been plays by Watt this season that have been just as pivotal in earning a "W" for Pittsburgh.
It isn't just pressure up front that is creating big stats for this year's Steelers defense, however.
If anyone was concerned that rookie linebacker Devin Bush hadn't been as noticeably active on the field in the past couple of games, he certainly made himself known on Sunday. In a close game due to a lack of offense, the Steelers defense needed a big play to give Devlin Hodges an opportunity to move the ball and get points on the scoreboard - whether via his teammates on offense or via the leg of Chris Boswell. Bush was able to make a brilliant play on Tyler Boyd, stripping the ball loose after the Bengals receiver had made the catch.
The recipient of the loose ball? Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has also been having a stellar season since joining the Steelers.
Bush has been involved in seven of the 27 takeaways the Steelers have created this season (four fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, and two interceptions). Bush leads the Pittsburgh defense with 79 tackles (49 solo) and is tied with Fitzpatrick with 1.0 defensive touchdowns due to a fumble recovery.
Total Takeaways by NFL Rookies
1 Devin Bush, PIT: 7 (2 INT + 4 FR + 1 FF)
2 Nick Bosa, SF: 4 (1 INT + 2 FR + 1 FF)
3 Maxx Crosby, OAK: 3 (3 FF)
4 Josh Allen, JAX: 2 (2 FF)
Brian Burns, CAR: 2 (1 FR + 1 FF)
Ryan Connelly, NYG: 2 (2 INT)
Bobby Okereke, IND: 2 (1 FR + 1 FF)
— Angela Tegnelia (@AngelaTegnelia) November 25, 2019
Fitzpatrick has been involved in eight of the 27 takeaways (five interceptions, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries - in just 8 games in a Steelers jersey). Fitzpatrick has returned five interceptions for 130 yards and another defensive touchdown while adding 42 total tackles (26 solo).
The Steelers defense has held half of their opponents to less than 100 yards rushing (through 12 weeks). They've allowed just four opposing teams during that same time period to score more than 24 points; holding six teams to 21 points or less (they held the Bengals - in both meetings - to just 13 total points).
Entering Week 13, the Steelers defense boasts 14 interceptions (182 yards return, one touchdown), 63 passes defensed, 17 forced fumbles, 61 tackles for a loss, and 82 quarterback hits.
If Pittsburgh's offense was playing at the level the defense was this season, this would be a Steelers team every fan would put into their history books. Unfortunately, all the right things didn't go the Steelers' way this season. There's still plenty of good to take from this team, however. If the defense can continue to post spectacular numbers, it may just give Tomlin and company the next few weeks to find the keys on offense at the perfect time - in the hunt for the playoffs.