Despite Paucity of Turnovers, Steelers Defense Continues to Establish Itself as one of NFL's Most Versatile and Stingy Units

If you read Behind the Steel Curtain during the 2010 NFL season, you probably remember me doing a weekly, season-long comparison of the 2010, 2008 and 1976 defenses. The '10 defense was off to such a great statistical start in the first quarter of the season that I felt compelled to track the unit's progress each week with the '08 unit that was the catalyst for the organization's record setting sixth Super Bowl triumph, as well as the '76 unit that older fans frequently cite when asked about the best defense they've ever seen play.

Of course, we know how last year's defense failed to keep their historic pace as the season progressed, culminating unfortunately in a poor showing against the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLIII. But there's no denying that last year's unit was a special one despite its inability to get the best of elite quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. It did, after all, set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards allowed per game, and once again lead the league in scoring defense. It also forced 35 turnovers, the most since the early years of the Bill Cowher era, and sacked quarterbacks 48 times, the most in the NFL in '10.

Well, after the Steelers Week 1 disaster against the Baltimore Ravens, I understandably did not think to pay too close attention to how Dick LeBeau's group was going to fare statistically. Survival was on my mind, not statistics. Fast forward seven weeks however, and all of a sudden it's beginning to look like we may need to keep an eye on whats this defense is accomplishing. 

The 2011 Steelers defense is second in scoring defense, second in yards allowed, first in passing yards allowed, and back in the top ten in rushing yards allowed after limiting the Patriots' backs to 43 yards rushing on 12 carries Sunday afternoon. Let's compare some traditional metrics of four great Steelers defenses through eight games. 

Comparison through 8 Games of the '76, '08, '10 and '11 Steelers Defenses
Year Points Points/Game Yards/Game Passing Yards/Game Rushing Yards/Game Turnovers Sacks
2011 (6-2) 139 17.4 270.8 171.6 99.1 3 20
2010 (6-2) 123 15.4 298.33 239.9 58.24 20 23
2008 (6-2) 116 14.5 235.7 163.97 70.1 14 32
1976 (4-4) 116 14.5 266.12 152.47 113.47 27 N/A**

**Sacks, of course, had not yet become an official stat in 1976, so we   unfortunately can't track and compare that category.

Analysis:

I should probably just remove the 1976 comparison, but it was handy from last year's comparison, so I included it here. Obviously the game was vastly different than the one played on Sunday's in the modern NFL, but because it's considered by many Steelers fans as the gold standard for defensive excellence, it's not such a bad thing to have it there as a point of reference. 

Anyway, there are the 2011 Steelers, just a shade behind some of those great units at 17.4 points per game at the midway mark of the season. That's after allowing 35 points in the season opener to Baltimore, not to mention garbage time touchdowns by Tennessee, Arizona, and most recently, New England. Don't forget as well that Indianapolis scored six on a long fumble return in Week 5. 

After the bye week, the Steelers should have a wonderful opportunity to really bolster their defensive stats. Here's the schedule after the Week 11 bye (Yards/Game rank, Points/Game rank)

  • at Kansas City Chiefs (28th, 25th)
  • vs. Cincinnati (22nd, 12th)
  • vs. Cleveland (25th, 28th)
  • at San Francisco (23rd, 6th)
  • vs. St. Louis (27th, 31st)
  • at Cleveland (25th, 28th)
There are some tough tests in there, make no mistake about it. Road games at KC, SF and CIN won't be walks in the park by any stretch of the imagination. But I think it's fair to say that outside of next weekend's matchup with the Ravens, there's not really an offense remaining on the schedule that poses a big threat from a pure talent perspective. I'm wont to believe that the rushing defense will continue to get better as we get deeper into the fall months, but I suppose that's partly related to whether or not Pittsburgh can avoid being bit too hard by the injury bug in its front-seven.

As for the passing games on tap? Not exactly frightening. It might be unrealistic to expect the passing defense to continue allowing fewer than 200 yards per game, but I don't see any quarterback on the horizon that's likely to light up Dick LeBeau's defense for 300-plus yards unless a big chunk comes in garbage time with the Steelers nursing a comfortable lead. 

To me, that just means we might look back on the statistical season of the 2011 Steelers defense when it's all said and done and think quite favorably of it. Remember, there is an unprecedentedly high number of passing yards being racked up each week across the league....against everyone but the Steelers' defense that is. And with Tom Brady and the Pats' offense out of the way, it's hard not to think that this group will finish the season in the top three in passing yards per game allowed. Through half of the season at least, the Steelers are atop the category and well within striking distance of the silly figure of 156.9 yards/game set back in 2008. 

 

What's really crazy though is the fact that the Steelers defense has been able to accomplish what it has without the aid of regular takeaways. The Steelers are still dead last in the NFL with just three turnovers forced. It's hard to pinpoint why that figure is so low, but luck definitely plays a role. How often does Troy Polamalu miss interceptions like he did against Arizona, for example? Not often. And interceptions are far less subject to fortune than are fumbles. The Steelers have recovered just one of those so far. Then again, they've only forced four, tied for the second lowest figure behind Philadelphia and San Diego. Get James Harrison back in the fold (perhaps as early as this coming Sunday) and that number is bound to increase. Whether or not the ball bounces our way is anybody's guess, but you can't recover fumbles if you aren't forcing them.  As for interceptions, it's hard to confidently predict that an avalanche of INTs is on the horizon, but it really doesn't matter. What we know through eight games is that this defense can be great without forcing the key turnovers on any sort of regular basis. Look out NFL. 

The sacks total (20) is also behind the number registered through eight games by the '08 and '10 units. Without the stellar play of LaMarr Woodley this past four weeks, that total would be far more paltry than it is. Again, hard to see the trajectory pointing anywhere but up in the second half of the season. 

Like I do with Mike Wallace's weekly statistical output, count on me tracking this for the remainder of the season. I am wholly convinced that it's an exercise well worth doing based on the development of the unit. And fingers crossed, but something tells me that the data will ultimately suggest that this year's Steelers defense should be thought of every bit as favorably as the units that propelled the Steelers to Super Bowl appearances in two of the previous three seasons. Let's sure hope I'm right. 

Go Steelers!

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