If you’re familiar at all with the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty, the words ‘defense’ and ’Steelers’ probably go hand-in-hand. Even after members of the famed Steel Curtain hung up their cleats, Pittsburgh had many exceptional defensive years, most notably through the 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Once Ben Roethlisberger became established as one of the league’s best quarterbacks, the Steelers made the transition from a defensive team to an offensive one. These teams were successful and fun to watch, but the term ‘offense wins games but defense wins championships’ rang true. Roethlisberger’s early years with an elite defense brought him two Super Bowl victories, but even though he was part of many talented offenses later on, he wasn’t able to win any more rings.
Despite a disappointing season in 2019, the Steelers had managed to put together an elite defense after success in the draft, free agency, and trades. Acquiring safety Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins was the final puzzle piece, and pairing him with stars such as T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Joe Haden brought out the best in all of their games.
But there’s a chance they can become even better this season.
Pittsburgh’s poor offense without Ben Roethlisberger sunk the 2019 Steelers, but the defense kept the team afloat for longer than anyone expected. An improved offense in 2020 should turn the ball over less and help the Steelers defense play from ahead more often, which could take an already excellent defense to new heights.
Roethlisberger isn't exactly known for a ball-control offense, which would benefit the Steelers defense the most, but whatever offense he and offensive coordinator Randy Fichter run should be better than the Mason Rudolph/Devlin Hodges show fans had to watch last year.
With Roethlisberger coming back from a season-ending elbow injury for the 2020 season, the Steelers have all of the pieces to be a contender come January. Their defense has already proven themselves as an exceptional unit, but they don’t seem to be planning on stopping there. Could they become the top defense in the entire league?
The Steelers starting defensive lineup this season is a formidable group. Their front seven is a quarterback’s worst nightmare, with an extremely talented pass-rushing trio of outside linebackers T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and defensive end/tackle Cameron Heyward. Watt has ascended into the upper echelon of NFL edge players, while Heyward has long been an underrated stalwart in the trenches. Bud Dupree finally had his breakout year in 2019, and looks to continue his success under the franchise tag this season.
Heyward’s defensive line teammate Stephon Tuitt is an intriguing player, as he is a disruptive force who has simply struggled to stay healthy. If Tuitt can remain on the field in 2020, the duo of him and Heyward should rank among the league’s best. In between Watt and Dupree, inside linebackers Devin Bush and Vince Williams are a great pair as well. Bush is a freak athlete who looks to be on track to become the next great Steelers linebacker, while Williams is a run-stuffing veteran with some blitzing ability.
After many poor years of secondary play, the Steelers found something special in their 2019 squad and look to continue their success into 2020. Cornerback Joe Haden isn’t getting any younger, but he turned in a Pro Bowl season last year and still has some good years left. On the other side, Steve Nelson shattered expectations as a free agent addition, providing lockdown coverage all year long as one of the NFL’s most underrated players. The Steelers managed to fit their scheme to slot defender Mike Hilton’s strengths which resulted in a good year for him, and Cameron Sutton and Justin Layne provided nice depth backing up the inside and outside positions.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ big trade addition last year, is an All-Pro free safety who could improve even more in 2020 after his first full offseason with the team. Terrell Edmunds manned the strong safety spot, and even though opposing offenses exposed some of his weaknesses, he proved to be a solid member of Pittsburgh’s talented secondary. He’s very athletic and a strong tackler, even landing second on the team in that area in 2019.
Pittsburgh has great pieces to go up against both the pass and run. Their strong secondary and pass-rushing core have allowed them to put up great turnover and sack numbers, while Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, and newcomer Chris Wormley are all excellent defenders against the run.
Pittsburgh has very few weaknesses along their defense, and is a consensus top-10 unit to most NFL analysts. The team has many individual defensive stars, but they’ve shown great ability to gel together and succeed as a unit. Their talent and on-the-field success is apparent, but how does it compare to the rest of the NFL?
The Steelers may not even have the best defense in their division to some, as the Baltimore Ravens have put together an impressive collection of talent for 2020. The Steelers have an eerily similar defense to Baltimore, with similar strengths and weaknesses at each positional group. The Steelers seem to be slightly better in most areas, but the Ravens are still a formidable defense that many rank higher than Pittsburgh’s entering 2020. The two AFC North heavyweights will have to battle it out this season, for not only the best defense in the division, but quite possibly the entire NFL.
Earlier this year, I attempted to objectively rank AFC North defenses by positional group. Even though there was some warranted criticism of a few of my rankings, the article still puts all four defenses side by side and really shows how neck-and-neck the Steelers and Ravens are. You can read the full breakdown here.
The 49ers, led by an insanely stacked defensive line and linebacker corps, as well as the Bills, who have an elite secondary and a strong front seven, are considered to be among the NFL’s best defenses. The Patriots, led by DPOY cornerback Stephon Gilmore, are often considered better than Pittsburgh’s as well. The Saints, Bears, and Chargers are also in contention for the top spot.
The Steelers are on par with all of the teams mentioned, and not one defense seems to stand a head and shoulders above Pittsburgh. In an offensively dominated league, true elite defenses are few and far between, but Pittsburgh is among those few and will definitely challenge for the top spot come 2020.
Pittsburgh has a chance for the first time in years to become the gold standard for defenses in the NFL. The Steelers have built an offense strong enough to be a solid compliment to their defense, and they match up well to the rest of the units in the NFL.
Not only would having the league’s best defense greatly improve Pittsburgh’s chances at a Super Bowl victory, but it would give the team’s defense a chance at finding a spot among the greatest in Steelers history.
Predictions for what will happen next season are purely speculation, but with the talent and opportunity the 2020 Steelers’ defense has, there’s a possibility we could be looking at the best defense in the NFL, or even the next ‘Steel Curtain’ or ‘Blitzburgh’.
There’s a chance another decade of great Steelers defense may be right around the corner.