Comparing the 2010 and 2011 Steelers, Part II: Defense

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Defensive Back coach Carnell Lake of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches warm ups before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on December 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

Here's my attempt to figure out this year's defense. (To see my thoughts on the offense click here.) While they ended up in a familiar locale (#1 in overall defense) they didn't get there in quite the traditional Steeler way.

Because the Steelers have historically fielded such good run defense, the feeling early in the season was that the 2011 defense was not particularly good, as it was clear that this defense was going to give up significant yardage to elite backs. In the end, they gave up half again as many rushing yards and a full yard/attempt more than the amazing 2010 unit. Although they gave up two more rushing touchdowns than they did in 2010, that only moved them down to the #2 spot in the league, by far their best number in the 2011 rushing stats.

As the season went on people started to notice that, unlike previous years, the defense was quite stout against the pass. In fact, they were at or near the top of the league. However, this stat was viewed with considerable suspicion. "After all," asked the doubters, "they haven't played particularly good quarterbacks, and why bother to pass when you can run against a team?" What wasn't really being noticed, however, was that while teams might be putting up some good running numbers, they weren't putting up many points, which is what matters in the end.

The game against New England was viewed as a litmus test to determine whether the pass defense was truly improved. If the Steelers secondary, which boasted one good corner (Taylor) and a bunch of cast-offs and rookies in the other spots, could keep Tom Brady in check, maybe the naysayers would start to believe.

We all know how that came out. William Gay, one of the top competitors for Most Despised Steeler on fansites, Keenan Lewis, long declared to be a bust, and a rookie or two helped hand Tom Brady one of his few defeats at the hands of the Steelers. Suddenly all eyes were on Carnell Lake, the new secondary coach, who apparently had spun a heap of straw into (Black and) Gold.

By the end of the season the Steelers' defense had climbed out of the deep hole it inhabited after Week 1. During the Steelers/Ravens contest the defense, predicted by many to be the top in the league prior to the game, gave up 35 points. The Ravens netted 170 rushing yards with a touchdown and 224 passing yards with 3 touchdowns. Joe Flacco completed 58.6% of his passes. Which is pretty good for Joe. Baltimore gained 5.5 yards per rushing attempt and overall gained 6.3 yards per offensive play. Add a 2-point conversion and two field goals, and you've got a banner day for the Ravens.

By contrast, during the remainder of the season here are the per-game averages for the defense:

12.8 points/game

95.1 rushing yards/game

3.9 Y/A rushing attempts

.4 rushing TD/game

168.5 passing yards/game

.8 passing TD/game

54% completion rate for opposing QB

4.6 Y/A per pass play

And don't forget, the defense had two shutouts, something they hadn't done in a while.

That's all very well, but now let's look at the official figures that don't give the Steelers a mulligan for the first game, and compare them to last season. All stats come from ProFootball Reference:

Points etc.

Pts

Yds

Yds/OP

1stD

2010 Team Defense

232

4429

4.5

272

2010 League Ranking

1

2

5

2011 Team Defense

227

4348

4.5

264

2011 League Ranking

1

1

1

Rushing

Att

YDs

TDs

Y/A

1stD

TO

2010 Team Defense

333

1004

5

3.0

61

35

2010 League Rank

1

1

1

1

3

2011 Team Defense

399

1597

7

4.0

82

15

2011 League Rank

8

8

2

9

32

Passing

Comp

Att

Yds

TDs

INT

NY/A

1stD

2010 Team Defense

363

593

3425

15

21

5.3

182

2010 League Rank

29

12

3

5

2

2011 Team Defense

289

530

2751

15

11

4.9

156

2011 League Rank

13

1

2

24

1

2010 - 61.2% of passes completed; 30.7% of pass attempts resulted in 1st down

2011 - 54.5% of passes completed; 29.4% of pass attempts resulted in 1st down

Carnell Lake (whose picture heads this story) managed these improvements with essentially the same players. He had two promising rookies, but a couple of other guys that had looked good in their time (such as Crezdon Butler) were cut. While not all of these numbers demonstrate dramatic improvements, they are all in the right direction, except, of course, the interception numbers.

I think that something that is easy to overlook when considering the secondary is just how unstable the front seven were this year. The defensive line and linebacking corps, both of which had always been considered to be quite deep, experienced an unprecedented number of injuries. This definitely put more pressure on the secondary, which makes their pass defense numbers this year all the more impressive.

It also goes a long way toward explaining the historically poor numbers of interceptions and forced fumbles. It's been said before but is worth repeating that the fact that this defense has performed so well without getting a lot of turnovers is possibly one of the most impressive things about this season. Imagine what the numbers would look like with a "normal" number of turnovers.

For what it's worth, that's my take on the defense. Based on the above information, I feel comfortable predicting that if the offense doesn't turn the ball over too often and manages to generate more than about 13 points, the defense can keep them in the running. Go Steelers!

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