Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers may finally be on its way to reversing its recent misfortunes on the defensive side of the football.
There’s no need to go back to the days of the Hall of Fame-laden “Steel Curtain.” It really wasn’t terribly long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the better defensive units in the league. It was led by the likes of defensive end Aaron Smith, outside linebacker James Harrison and strong safety Troy Polamalu. The unit was a big part of the franchise’s 2008 NFL championship season and a huge reason the club went back to the Super Bowl two years later.
These days, defensive-minded Mike Tomlin’s club is more propelled by its offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has emerged as one of the game’s most prolific passers. The team always seems to have plenty of talent at wide receiver. In recent years, “Big Ben” has had big-play performers such as Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster at his disposal. The Pittsburgh aerial game has been Top 5 in the league each year since 2014. But it’s also worth noting that the last time the Steelers finished in the Top 10 in the NFL in rushing was back in 2007 – Tomlin’s first year in the Steel City.
Of course, that certain lack of balance has made things a little more difficult for the other side of the ball. The team’s quick-strike ability has been fun to watch. But dating back to the 2017playoffs, we have seen the Steelers lose home games to the Jaguars (45-42), Chiefs (42-37) and Chargers (33-30). The latter setback saw Tomlin’s club blow a 23-7 lead late in the third quarter.
So what about the defense? It’s not as if the organization hasn’t tried to find the right pieces. In each of the past seven drafts dating back to 2013, general manager Kevin Colbert has made a defensive player the team’s first-round selection. Over that stretch the club has selected five linebackers, one cornerback and a safety. There have been mixed results to date. While the club has combined for an impressive 108 sacks the past two seasons, subpar play in the secondary have nullified a strong pass rush.
The loss of rangy inside linebacker Ryan Shazier late in 2017 has been difficult to overcome. The Steelers have struggled in the takeaway department. In 37 regular-season contests from 2015-17, the former Ohio State Buckeye totaled seven interceptions, three fumble recoveries and forced seven fumbles.
But the franchise’s decision to move up 10 spots in April’s draft to select University of Michigan inside linebacker Devin Bush has looked like a good one after a pair of preseason performances. The Steelers also added veteran Mark Barron to roam the inside. The hybrid pro, along with Bush and cornerback Steven Nelson (late of the Kansas City Chiefs) add some much-needed speed to this unit.
It was hard to ignore that improvement in the team’s 18-6 preseason win at Tennessee this past weekend. Keith Butler’s unit was flying all around the field. Pittsburgh’s front six dominated the contest and with the new looks at inside linebacker, pass-rushers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree spent plenty of time in the Titans’ backfield. The emphasis remains on hitting but now that is combined with quickness. And those sudden impact hits can lead to more big plays. In 2018, only the 49ers (7) and Lions (14) forced fewer turnovers than the Steelers (15). Dating back to 2011, only the Titans have managed fewer takeaways than Tomlin’s club.
It’s a different NFL these days and while the Pittsburgh Steelers have kept up on offense and in spectacular fashion in terms of the passing game, it’s the defense that has been behind the times in certain regards. Losing Shazier did not help and here’s hoping he’s back on the field someday. In any case, the team’s new additions on this side of the ball at inside linebacker and the secondary have seemingly created a spark. The regular-season starts at Foxborough in a little over a week. And all will soon find out if this defense has truly cured what has ailed it for far too long.