If you were hoping for a vast improvement in a Steelers pass-defense that finished 30th a year ago, you may be out of luck, as evidenced by the 294 yards the unit allowed through the air in a 30-17 loss to Detroit in the preseason opener at Heinz Field Friday night.
But if what took place in the first half was any indication, the 2015 theme of bending but not breaking, and altering the course of drives and games with those all-important “splash plays” may continue into 2016.
After years of looking pedestrian in areas such as pressuring the quarterback and creating turnovers, the defense took a big leap forward a year ago under first year defensive coordinator Keith Butler. Between 2011-2014, the unit averaged 19 takeaways and roughly 35 sacks—that’s not going to get it done with regards to making it to and winning a Super Bowl.
But in 2015, the defense sacked the quarterback 47 times and recorded 30 takeaways—many of those takeaways occurred when opposing offenses were driving and looked poised to put points on the board.
How does that last part pertain to Friday night?
Unlike Pittsburgh, who didn’t start most of its key offensive personnel, the Lions sent out their top offensive unit on their opening drive to face the Steelers top defenders.
Things didn’t look good early, as quarterback Matthew Stafford proceeded to lead the offense on a 12-play, 53-yard drive down to the Pittsburgh 27.
However, on third and 12, linebacker James Harrison, the 38-year old phenom, beat left tackle Taylor Decker and stripped Stafford of the football; Arthur Moats recovered at the Steelers 37-yard line, and just like that, Detroit’s scoring threat was snuffed out.
Early in the second quarter, Doran Grant intercepted a pass by Lions’ backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky and raced 39-yards to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead. While a nice feather in the cap for the second-year corner who could surely need one, Grant’s effort wasn’t the noteworthy part—he simply hauled in an errant pass and ran to pay-dirt. The important portion of the play was the pressure reserve defensive end Ricardo Mathews applied on Orlovsky, which forced him to scramble for his life and, ultimately, make a poor decision.
Coaches are always quick to point out that turnovers are the most important statistic of a football game; when you look at the early portion of Friday’s contest (the part before full-on substitutions took place on both sides), takeaways provided at least a 10-point swing, and the Steelers held a 14-3 lead late in the second quarter—this despite the Lions having an overwhelming advantage in time of possession, yards and third down conversions.
It would be foolish to point out the increase in turnovers a season ago and not attribute a great deal of it to improved quarterback pressure.
So who will step up and provide the lion’s share of the pressures and sacks in 2016? If you go by 2015’s numbers, the defense may not need one or two individuals to carry the load.
Sixteen different defenders were credited with at least a portion of a sack in 2015. Defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt led the way, with seven and six-and-a-half, respectively, while linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Harrison finished with five each. Rookie Bud Dupree had four, as did Will Allen and Moats.
In other words, 2015 was pressure by committee for the Steelers’ defense.
The secondary is clearly in flux right now, and will probably continue to be throughout the summer, fall and winter (I wouldn’t bet on the pass-defense finishing much better than 30th again this year).
But if the front-seven can once again help ease the pressure by, well, applying pressure, it just might be enough to keep the Steelers Super Bowl-ship sailing far into January.