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Could the Steelers’ defense finally provide some game-ending stops in 2019?

If this team has truly broken out from the recent mold, how will it translate to their success on the field?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are doing their best to create the image they are not the typical Steelers team. Several big “personalities” are no longer in the locker room and camaraderie seems to be the point of emphasis. Analysts are doubting them, and the team wants nothing more than to fly under the radar.

But if this team isn’t wanting to be the typical Steelers team, then are there things we fans associate with the Steelers which would not be safe to assume in 2019? Over the next few weeks leading up to training camp, we will look at several Steeler trends from recent years, both positive and negative, and see if the expectations should change based on evolving attitudes and philosophies.

Game-Ending Stops

Steelers fans are spoiled.

There, I said it.

Steeler fans are spoiled because multiple generations have been able to enjoy stifling defenses who were feared across the league. Between the 70s, 90s, and 2000s, Steeler fans from a variety of ages saw all-time defensive greats bringing pride to the Steel City.

But the NFL of 2019 is not the same. There’s a magic equation which drives much of the play and rules governing the NFL:

More offense = More viewers = More $$$

As the game has evolved, most of the rules are set up to make the job of stopping an opponent more difficult than ever. Today’s Steeler fans would agree, they would much rather the offense have the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win than have the defense on the field having to make a stop with their backs to the wall.

But can 2019 change this narrative? First let’s dive into understanding the problem before seeking out a couple solutions.

Making the big stop

The difference between 13-3 and 9-6-1 is so small in the NFL that only a couple defensive stops can make the difference. Looking at the last two seasons, I broke down every game in which the Steelers were tied or led by one score or less with 5:00 or fewer left in the game. Additionally, I did not count situations where opponents began a drive with less than 0:20 remaining since time was their greater opponent.

In 2018, the Steelers had nine games where they held the lead (or were tied) in the final five minutes of the 4th quarter. In those games, the Steelers went 5-3-1. While the Steelers did win the majority of these games, the defense gave up their lead (or tie) in five of them while only holding their opponents from scoring four times.

To clarify, the reason there is a discrepancy in the record versus the number of times the Steelers gave up a score is because of two different games. The first game was Week 6 in Cincinnati when the Steelers gave up a touchdown with just over a minute remaining and lost their six point lead. Fortunately, the Steelers were able to go down and score a game-winning touchdown.

The other discrepancy was Week 1 at Cleveland when the Steelers were up seven points with just over two minutes remaining and gave up a touchdown, ultimately sending the game to overtime. It should be noted the Steelers did have another situation inside of two minutes where the defense made the stop with a tie game. The defense also made two separate stops on drives inside of two minutes remaining in overtime in order to hold on for a tie.

Of the four stops the Steelers made to secure a victory in 2018, one was in Baltimore during Week 9. The Steelers were up seven points when they punted to the Ravens with 0:44 remaining. Therefore the clock was their ally as the Ravens had no timeouts and ultimately lost a yard before time expired.

The other games in which Steelers made their stops in 2018 were Week 3 in Tampa, Week 15 against New England, and Week 17 against Cincinnati. In the wins over Tampa and Cincy, the Steelers held their opponent from even achieving a first down. Against New England, the Patriots drove down inside the red-zone until a penalty pushed them back to the 21 yard line and the Steelers ultimately made the stop.

If comparing results to 2017, the Steelers had eight games in which the defense was asked to hold the opponent with less than five minutes remaining. In these games, the Steelers went 6-2. The first loss was in Week 3 at Chicago where the defense made the stop at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime. Unfortunately, several big rushes ended overtime very early in favor of the Bears.

In eight opportunities in the 2017 season, the only game where the Steelers defense gave up the score was Week 15 against New England. As we all remember (but wish we could forget), the Steelers received the ball back and went on to score the go-ahead touchdown-that-wasn’t, followed two plays later by an interception.

So what can the Steelers do in 2019 to get the end of game stops like they did in 2017?

Increased Speed

The most glaring realization of the Steelers needing to finish up games on defense has to be the results of games post Ryan Shazier. The Steelers had made every end-game stop in 2017 up until Shazier’s horrific injury in Week 13 at Cincinnati. Since that time, the Steelers have only been able to hold their opponents 50% of the time in end-game situations.

After GM Kevin Colbert openly admitted the Steelers did not do enough to replace Ryan Shazier in 2018, they made both the free-agent signing of Mark Barron and a drastic move in the first round of the draft in order to get Devin Bush. Both of these players bring the increased speed and pass coverage ability to the inside linebacker position the Steelers have missed since December 4, 2017.

Cornerback Depth

To say the Steelers struggled to field a full slate of quality cornerbacks in 2018 would be an understatement. Artie Burns under performed to such a level that Coty Sensabaugh took over the starting roll only to find himself no longer with the team in the off-season. While Joe Haden continues to perform and Mike Hilton returns from an injury which nagged him most of last season, being able to fill out the entire secondary still must be necessary in order to get late-game stops.

Much like inside linebacker, the Steelers addressed this position both through free agency and the draft. Steven Nelson signed the largest contract ever as a free agent for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Additionally, the Steelers drafted Justin Lane in the third round which was considered to be a steal by many when the pick was made. If either one of these players can perform, the Steelers should hopefully be able to fill out their depth chart quite nicely. And unless he makes major strides this preseason, Artie Burns could find himself buried so far on the depth chart to where he could find himself without a helmet if he’s even still on the Steelers roster.

With the Steelers attempting to upgrade two positions through both free agency and the draft, I find myself optimistic the defense will be greatly improved in 2019. While the expectation of a dominating defense characteristic of the Pittsburgh Steelers from years ago is something extremely difficult to find in today’s NFL, I still believe the Steelers could be strong enough defensively to make key stops at the end of games in order to secure a victory.