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The 2018 Steelers will go only as far as their defense takes them

Having let the team down at a crucial juncture in the playoff loss to the Jaguars, the Steelers’ defense has a lot to prove in 2018 and beyond.

NFL: AFC Divisional Playoff-Jacksonville at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve never made the pilgrimage to Steelers training camp, I’d definitely recommend making a point to do so. It’s held annually in Latrobe, PA, a redoubt for wayward yinzers that is framed beautifully by the surrounding vista—a vast expanse of rolling hills, deep blue skies, and forests as big as oceans. The town itself is unimpressive even by small-town standards — you could drive through the whole thing in 15 seconds if you wanted — but not totally devoid of allure. The main boulevard, for instance, holds scads of aged-but-charming infrastructure. Saint Vincent College, where training camp has been held annually since 1966, is its foremost emblem, sitting just outside downtown, its unmistakable spires rising triumphantly from the hills and trees, giving it the guise of, I don’t know, Hogwarts or something. If you ever have the opportunity to go — go! If you’re seeking insight in constructing a Steelers-fan bucket list, I’d put training camp at the tippy top, well above traveling to Heinz Field for a game or wearing a Heath Miller jersey to Disney World. Watching these dudes live, from 40 feet away, is an incredible experience. Like, if you think the stuff Antonio Brown does on television is beyond ridiculous, wait ‘til you see him toast defenders or snag uncatchable passes in real time. It’s amazing.

So that’s that. I’d now like to discuss the defense (I’m bad at segues). I’ll start with the increasingly retrograde performance by Pittsburgh’s defense in the weeks that followed Ryan Shazier’s back injury, culminating in a playoff loss to Jacksonville in which they essentially countervailed a legendary Ben Roethlisber/Antonio Brown performance. That day, in a game the Steelers lost 45-42, Leonard Fournette gained what seemed like a million rushing yards, Blake BortlesBlake Bortles!—did a very convincing impression of a serviceable professional quarterback, and Keith Butler stood idly by, mouth agape, looking absolutely flummoxed by the events unfolding in front of his own eyes. The offense is not bereft of fault, of course—Roethlisberger threw a terrible interception and fumbled, while former offensive coordinator Todd Haley dialed up at least a pair of ghastly, ill-timed plays that will forever live in infamy. But pragmatically speaking, that particular loss can be attributed to the defense’s terminal inability to stop either the run or the pass.

I’ll pause to mention that leveraging such a narrow-minded, heuristic approach isn’t, like, the best approach for assessing the “big picture” acuity of any player, position group, unit, or team. This is to say, the Steelers did lots of things well defensively in 2017. They amassed 56 sacks during the regular season, for example, which not only led the NFL but was the highest single-season total in franchise history. That’s saying a lot for an organization so historically adept at rushing the passer that they its adopted the “Blitzburgh” moniker. Impressive, too, is the fact that the Steelers finished in the top-five in the NFL in total yards allowed per game, yards allowed per play, first downs per game, defensive DVOA, and third-down percentage. Pittsburgh also boasted a top-10 scoring defense, a top-10 run defense, and, statistically, a top-10 secondary. In fact, based on virtually any quantifiable defensive metric, the Steelers defense excelled in 2017, and it isn’t a stretch to say that this group empowered Pittsburgh to secure the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

But returning to the discussion of Jacksonville, it was a systemic defensive failure, ranging from Butler’s tactical ineptitude to Pittsburgh’s dearth of speedy and disciplined middle linebackers, that sank the Steelers’ ship. Top-10 rankings and franchise high-water marks mean nothing if they don’t translate to postseason victories. None of this is to say that, had the defense, you know, not allowed 378 yards (including 164 rushing yards) and five touchdowns (including four rushing touchdowns), the Steelers absolutely would’ve beaten Jacksonville and New England and Philadelphia on their way to their seventh Super Bowl, but they could have! The Patriots were eminently beatable in 2017—the Steelers very nearly did (and should have) beat New England in Week 15 of the regular season, and Jacksonville held a fourth quarter lead against the Patriots in Foxborough during the AFC Championship game—and the Eagles, while insanely talented, didn’t necessarily boast a greater degree of top-end talent than Pittsburgh. The 2018 iteration of the Steelers will look significantly different than its 2017 counterpart, but aside from Shazier (and to a lesser extent, if we’re being extremely benevolent with our praise, Mike Mitchell) the primary contributors—Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, and Joe Haden, to name a few—will remain in place. New additions like Jon Bostic, Morgan Burnett, and Terrell Edmunds will presumably be called upon to fill critical roles in order to account for the lack of explosiveness in the middle of the defense, while holdovers like Artie Burns and Sean Davis will be tasked with overcoming the struggles that torpedoed their sophomore campaigns.

And these are just the folks we know about. Perhaps an unheralded no-name like Marcus Allen (I realize many folks know this person, but I’ll attribute that to the bevy of Penn State supporters on this here blog), Matthew Thomas (a former five-star prospect who was regarded as the crown jewel of a 2013 Florida State recruiting class that included Jalen Ramsey), or Lavon Hooks (now taking his fourth crack at the roster) can emulate Mike Hilton’s preseason performance last season and secure not only a roster spot, but a prominent starting role.

Regardless of who ultimately fills out the depth chart, the Steelers are only going to go as far as their defense takes them. Last year, it was the AFC Divisional Round; the year before that, they made it to the AFC Championship game, where they faced a requisite skewering at the hands of Tom Brady and the Patriots. If the defense tightens up just a little bit in the postseason, another Super Bowl is well within reach for the Steelers.