I can hear your laughter, and I understand your skepticism. The Steelers are 1-3 and before pounding a terrible Bengals team on Mike Tomlin’s favorite football day, the team ranked at the bottom of the NFL in most defensive categories.
But when you look at circumstances and the players on the field, the picture starts to look a lot brighter. And remember, Minkah Fitzpatrick has only been a Steeler for 2 games, and is entering his second full week of practice with the team.
What a difference a game makes
Through 3 games the Steelers ranked 28th in points allowed, 29th in yards allowed, and 23rd in yards per play allowed, just overall terrible.
After holding the Bengals to 3 points and 175 total yards of offense those numbers look a lot better, the Steelers now rank:
14th in points allowed (+14)
20th in yards allowed (+9)
12th in yards per play (+11)
That’s a middle of the road defense.
But this Steelers defense isn’t the same one we saw week one, not at all.
In his article before the season, cliff harris is still a punk! argued that Sean Davis improving his play was a key to the 2019 season, and did a great job showing that FS play would be a huge factor for this defense. While he couldn’t predict the injury to Davis or the team trading for Fitzpatrick, he has proven to be completely correct in his argument that FS play would be incredibly important for this Steelers defense.
The Steelers have had 3 starting Free Safeties in 4 games, Kameron Kelly, Sean Davis, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Kelly started the New England game, Sean Davis started the Seattle game and was injured in the second half, and Minkah Fitzpatrick has started and played the last 2 games.
If you look at per-drive stats, it is remarkable the difference the status of our FS position has made.
With Kameron Kelly or an injured Sean Davis at FS.**
15 drives, 683 yards, 54 points allowed, 1 turnover forced. 45.5 yards, 3.60 points and 0.07 turnovers per drive.
That’s the New England game and most of the second half of the Seattle game, after Davis was hurt the Seahawks went on three straight TD drives.
With Sean Davis healthy, or Minkah Fitzpatrick:
29 drives, 818 yards, 34 points allowed, 8 turnovers forced. 28.2 yards, 1.17 points and 0.28 turnovers per drive.
The yards and points numbers without a healthy, NFL caliber FS would rank last in the NFL, tying Miami for most points allowed per drive, and beating them in yards per drive allowed. Only Denver would be behind the Steelers in turnover percentage.
The numbers with Davis healthy or Fitzpatrick would rank 4th in points per drive, 9th in yards per drive, and 1st in turnover percentage.
**Sean Davis played some after his injury against Seattle, but was not the same player he was earlier in the game.
The best Defense is a strong Offense
Through 3 games, the Steelers defense had faced 212 plays on defense, only Detroit with 213 faced more. A worn down defense is a poor defense. The Steelers have been a poor defense in the second half of games, but they’ve also been on the field too much in the first half. The Steelers in the first three games faced 109 first half plays on defense, second highest in the NFL. The Steelers offense ran 77 plays, second lowest in the NFL. The Steelers defense was on the field for 58.6% of plays in the first half through week 3. That ranks #1 in the NFL. If your defense is facing the highest percentage of plays in the first half of any team, you aren’t going to get good defense in the second half.
So let’s compare what they did in the first half of the first 3 games to the second half. I’ll use per drive stats to balance for the higher total of plays faced. The defense doesn’t really control the number of drives they face, they have a lot of say in what happens on those drives.
The Steelers were actually a middle of the road defense in the first half of the first three games, giving up the 19th most yards per drive, ranking 14th in scoring percentage, 13th in TD percentage and 1st in Turnover percentage.
In the second half of those games, the Steelers were much worse. Ranking 22nd in yards per drive, 31st in scoring and TD percentage and 16th in turnover percentage.
This often gets blamed on a lack of half-time adjustments, but really, the difference is the defense is worn down and is rotating backups in and just isn’t as good. Adjustments do matter, but we’re talking about a solid defense becoming a horrible one, if it was horrible in the first and horrible in the second half, then adjustments make sense as a chief problem. But when the defense works in the first half and fails in the second, and they were on the field much more than the offense. . . it’s not hard to realize that’s a significant part of the problem.
Putting it all together
The first half numbers for the Steelers defense above includes Kameron Kelly’s first half against New England. If you take that game out, and look at first half defense with either Sean Davis or Minkah Fitzpatrick playing, you get the following per-drive numbers:
9th in yards per drive.
4th in scoring percentage.
3rd in TD percentage.
1st in TO percentage.
In the first half, with a healthy NFL caliber FS the Steelers have given up a total of 13 points on 19 drives. And that TD was with Sean Davis on the field. The Steelers have given up 6 points in the first half with Minkah Fitzpatrick. They’ve forced 5 turnovers in that span.
Five forced turnovers. Six points allowed. That’s pretty good.
And against the Bengals, when the Steelers defense played only 28 snaps in the first half, compared to an average of 36.3 snaps in the first three games, they shut out their opponent in the second half.
Late in the first half against Cincinnati the Steelers run game started to really gain some chunks. At the time I thought to myself that they were starting to break the Bengals, even though the game was super close, the Bengals defense was starting to give way to the Steelers run game. That second half the Steelers dominated.
Score differential in the second half for games where the defense was on the field more than the offense in the first half is -22, the Steelers scored 33 points and gave up 55. In the one game the Steelers ran more plays than the opposing offense? 17-0.
The first half differential after the New England game is 26-13 in favor of the Steelers.
If you are still skeptical consider this number: Stephon Tuitt played 55 of 69 snaps against Cincinnati, and a good chunk of those 14 snaps he was out were late in the game with a big lead.
Against Seattle in a close game Tuitt also played 55 snaps, but he was out for 23 of the defense’s 78 snaps.
Against the 49ers, which was also close the whole game Tuitt played 52 snaps, and was out for 27 of the 79 defensive snaps.
If this defense can afford to have Stephon Tuitt on the field for 80% of it’s snaps, it will be a much better team than if he’s only out there for 68%. The Cincinatti game had the most snaps with both Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt on the field this season. I shouldn’t need to tell you that Heyward and Tuitt together is better than one of them and one of the backups.
That’s how you run a top tier defense. If we’re only playing one of our stud DTs at a time because the defense is on the field all game, then we won’t have success. If the offense can continue to move the ball and eat a larger percentage of the plays each game, those two will be on the field a higher percentage of snaps and this Steelers defense could very well be a top ten or even a top 5 defense this year.