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Steelers Report Card: Grading Pittsburgh’s Defense and Special Teams for the 2018 season

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Grading the performance of Keith Butler’s 2018 Steeler defense and Danny Smith’s ST unit.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Steelers started off the 2018 season at 1-2-1. It looked to be the beginning of the end until they reeled off six-straight wins and stood at 7-2-1 with six games remaining. Then they faltered down the stretch, as the defense surrendered four second-half leads in those final six contests. The special teams were complicit too. With that, I am tasked to break out the red pen and evaluate the team for what was a most-disappointing 2018.

As I’ve stated all along, I’m not a football coach or a teacher, but I play one in blogs and podcasts. Each week of the 2018 exhibition and regular season, I’ve graded the efforts of the Black-and-Gold via “the eye test”. Grading games is an extremely difficult and somewhat thankless task. While the coaches’ grades, of course, are what count the most, the media and fans can’t help but evaluate as well. So you, the reader, get to vote as well. You even get to grade the grader in the comments section.

So let’s take a look at BTSC’s perceptions of the 2018 Steeler Defense and Special Teams.

Defense

The Defensive Line was, again, the most-complete unit. Cam Heyward was elected to the Pro Bowl based on his eight sacks and solid leadership up front. Early in the season, he was being subbed-out for a so-so Tyson Alualu, but that changed after the first quarter of games. Javon Hargrave emerged as more than just a plug in the middle. His 49 tackles, 6.5 sacks and eight QB hits were a pleasant surprise as he solidified the middle of the line. Stephon Tuitt didn’t have the glaring sack numbers (only 5.5), but he was second on the team with 20 QB hits and his presence was sorely missed in his two games absent. Daniel McCullers, Alualu and LT Walton provided average depth.

At OLB, T.J Watt led the team with 12 sacks and 21 QB hits. No. 90 is quickly emerging as a mainstay and key cog on the defense. On the other side, Bud Dupree was playing for his job and chipped-in with 5.5 sacks and 13 QB hits. Dupree may have done enough, in some eyes, to stay. But he still failed to look like a juggernaut and overran the quarterback on multiple occasions. Anthony Chickillo provided decent depth.

The Inside Linebackers did not come close to filling the void vacated by Ryan Shazier’s devestating injury. Jon Bostic and Vince Williams provided a few big plays here-and-there, but were mostly ineffective. L.J. Fort emerged as the top reserve here and played better than expected.

The corner play was dreadful, allowing 30 more ypg than they did in 2017. Joe Haden and Mike Hilton were bright spots, but Cam Sutton and Coty Sensabaugh were suspect a majority of the time. Then there was Artie Burns. No. 25 was scorched-earth and regressed to the point of getting benched for the majority of the stretch run. This unit needs a lot of attention.

The play at safety was slightly improved, but still gave up a lot of real estate. Sean Davis looks like he’s becoming a leader back there and Morgan Burnett, when healthy provided big plays. Terrell Edmunds had growing pains as a rookie and still has a long way to go, but he played the most snaps of 2018 and started to show some promise.

Overall Defense Grade: C-

If the defensive performance was based solely on rankings, one would think the Steelers had improved on that side of the ball. The team was sixth in the league in total yards allowed at 327.2 yards-per-game and tied for the league lead with 52 sacks. Ranked tenth and sixth respectively against the pass (231.1 ypg) and run (96.1) makes it seem like the team has a powerful defense. But when you dig down deeper, a mere seven interceptions and a -11 turnover ratio had the team ranked 28th in both of those categories. Butler’s defense was also middle of the pack (tied for 16th) in points-per-game with 22.5 ppg allowed. Most disconcerting was the losses of leads down the stretch in four of their final six games that led to losses. True that the offense let them down with turnovers, but in the fourth quarter down-the-stretch...they bent and broke. The scheming was horrendous with linebackers covering wide receivers early-and-often and going stretches without pressuring whatsoever. This unit was a huge part of the problem in 2018.

Poll

What grade would you assign the Steelers Defense for 2018?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A
    (1 vote)
  • 6%
    B
    (39 votes)
  • 42%
    C
    (260 votes)
  • 44%
    D
    (270 votes)
  • 6%
    F
    (42 votes)
612 votes total Vote Now

Special Teams

Plain and simple, this unit was pretty dreadful. PFF ranked the guys coached by Danny Smith Jr. 29th in the league. I thought it would be lower. There were some great moments, but they were scant. The unit led the league on ST penalties. At one point, they just seemed expected. Ryan Switzer was brought in to jumpstart the return game, but that didn’t happen. The team ranked 31st with 19.9 ypg on kickoffs and 17th with 8.1 ypg on punt returns. They ranked 5th in allowing kickoff return yards (20.8), but dead last with 14.4 punt return yards allowed.

Chris Boswell went from Pro Bowler and fan favorite to the scourge of the city. As a team, the Steelers only hit 69.6 of their field goals to rank 31st, but that was aided by Matt McCrane’s three field goals in Week 17. Boz missed seven field goals and five extra points. Many of them costly in a losing effort. Jordan Berry improved from a rough start in the punting arena, but still ranked 29th with 43.4 ypg.

Overall Defense Grade: D

All of these poor stats and DSJ, Berry and Boswell expect to be retained. Wow!

Poll

What grade would you assign the Steelers Special Teams for 2018?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    A
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    B
    (1 vote)
  • 5%
    C
    (30 votes)
  • 29%
    D
    (169 votes)
  • 64%
    F
    (372 votes)
573 votes total Vote Now