Fielding a good defense in the NFL has proven time and again that it's one of the most important aspects of a team's success. Some defenses excel at stopping the run, while others are better at defending the pass. Others carry their offense when it struggles, own the red zone, or create a high rate of turnovers. Over the past couple of seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have fielded a talented defense. After analyzing stats from the 2018 and 2019 regular seasons, it comes as no surprise that the Steelers defense has earned top rankings.
When Pro Football Focus (PFF) released this Tweet on July 5, it was a ranking that illustrated what many NFL experts and Steelers analysts, including Steel City Underground, already understood. The Steelers have been playing great defense.
Defense/special teams rankings
4. Ravens pic.twitter.com/EpNPm1y7WX
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) July 5, 2020
Following the 2018 season, our Steel City Underground team looked at numbers posted by the Steelers defense that really stood out. Cam Heyward was one player whose production anchored the squad. He finished his 2018 regular season campaign with 8.0 total sacks (his second-best career year in that statistic). He also added 51 tackles (29 solo), three passes defensed, and forced one fumble. Heyward remained a key component to not only providing pass rush but also in helping limit opponents to 72-of-197 third-down conversions and 5,235 total offensive yards (to the Steelers' 6,453).
T.J. Watt's career sack total moved to 20.0 in 2018 - the most by a Steelers player in their first two seasons in the NFL (LaMarr Woodley: 15.5, 2007-2008) with the team. Watt also became the first Steelers player with at least six forced fumbles in a single season since James Harrison (2010: 6) and increased his career total to seven (which tied Harrison's 2008 season total).
During the 2019 regular season, despite the many struggles on offense, the Steelers found ways to keep their defense firing on all cylinders. Part of that success was continued production from Heyward and Watt but the backfield was very active as well. While Pittsburgh didn't lead in limiting pass production, they were second only to the New England Patriots secondary. The addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick, combined with improvements in where certain defensive players were rotated - including Devin Bush, Mike Hilton, Steven Nelson, and Kameron Kelly - the Steelers had grabbed six interceptions through the first five weeks of play (tied for third in the league).
To say that Pittsburgh's defense was tenacious in 2019 is an understatement. The Steelers finished at the top of the league in total takeaways with 18 forced fumbles and 20 interceptions for 38 total turnovers. Pittsburgh also led the league in sacks, with 54 over the length of the 2019 season. Watt led all Steelers defenders in sack totals. Fitzpatrick and Bush were big contributors to getting Pittsburgh's defense to the top of the rankings as well.
The Steelers led the league in quarterback pressures, with 180, and also led the league in quarterback pressures (combined sacks, hurries, knockdowns) by creating an effective mix of plays that resulted in 30.5 percent of all plays giving opposing teams' offenses nightmares. They knocked down pass attempts on 10.9 percent of all plays (ranked second in the NFL). They blitzed on just 36.9% of their defensive plays and still created the mayhem Steelers fans love to see their defense create. Pittsburgh also allowed the third-fewest pass completions by opponents in the league last season (314-of-514).
In closing, if you were an NFL fan and surprised by the fact that the Steelers earned the top ranking by PFF, you may not have been watching Pittsburgh's defense closely. Granted, the offensive woes were enough to give anyone a high level of stress but the Steelers defense was giving plenty of that to their offensive opponents as well.