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Has the Steelers’ defense met expectations so far in 2021?

Amidst injuries and players underperforming, has Keith Butler’s group maintained its 2020 form and lived up to the hype?

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

Knowing how the Steelers’ season did a true about-face last year, did we really expect anything less than a rollercoaster ride in 2021?

After beating the almighty Buffalo Bills in Week 1, the Steelers went on an ugly skid, dropping three contests – two of them at home, a rare occurrence – before a corresponding three-game win streak. If there’s one thing Mike Tomlin’s consistent with (besides otherworldly media responses), it’s his teams playing rather inconsistently.

Even in 2019, a year with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges flailing for even decent quarterback play, the Steelers still finished .500 thanks to a Herculean defense. And since that season, Pittsburgh’s D has remained its hallmark.

Entering 2021, numerous analysts figured that the Steelers would boast one of the foremost defensive units in the NFL. The return of Devin Bush, the acquisition of Joe Schobert and the emergence of Alex Highsmith all figured to keep the honors of top NFL defense in the Steel City.

Through seven games – very nearly the halfway point of the season – has Keith Butler’s unit performed up to snuff, especially in light of very lofty expectations? Let’s conduct some research and find out.

Strengths

Overall, the Steelers rank in the top quarter, if not better, of most key defensive statistical categories.

Before their Week 9 clash with the Chicago Bears, the Steelers enter Monday night having surrendered just under 350 yards per game, good for 11th in the league. If yards allowed isn’t your favorite metric for measuring holistic defensive performance, try Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value over Average (DVOA), where the Steelers’ defense ranks 10th (although the metrics were last updated on Nov. 4).

On the surface, those numbers may not be impressive. But taking a deeper look at Pittsburgh’s ability to keep teams out of the end zone will likely raise your eyebrows.

In their seven matchups, the Steelers have given up an average of 20.3 points per game, which is tied for 7th in the NFL. More recently, though, PIT has yielded just 16.3 points per game against the Broncos, Seahawks and Browns – granted, three subpar-to-average offenses, but wins nonetheless.

Additionally, Mike Tomlin’s defense has had tremendous success in the red zone. Only 47.6% of opponents’ drives inside the 20 result in a touchdown – that percentage is tied for 2nd in pro football.

With a defensive line that features T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Highsmith, the Steelers were expected to harass the quarterback at a high clip – and Butler’s group has done so. Despite having a 20.1% blitz rate (21st), the Steelers are tied for 2nd in pressure rate and have the 2nd-highest hurry rate in the NFL.

Even in light of injuries to Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, Pittsburgh has continued to apply the clamps to opposing offenses. At the same time, the six-time Super Bowl Champions haven’t been without some defensive miscues.

Weaknesses

A moment ago, I outlined how the Steelers excel at interfering with QBs’ timing despite not actively blitzing much. Yes, Pittsburgh has tallied a myriad of pressures and hurries, but Tomlin’s bunch hasn’t racked up a gaudy number of sacks.

In total, the Steelers have just 19 sacks, which is tied for 12th in the NFL – and yes, T.J. Watt has totaled just below 45% of Pittsburgh’s sack total, to little surprise. Ranking 12th generally isn’t a bad sign (especially since every other team has played eight or nine games), but it’s underwhelming given that the Steelers have led the league in sacks in each of the last four years.

Moreover, another facet that has declined in 2021 is the Steelers’ ability to gain takeaways. Thus far, Tomlin’s team has snatched the ball from offenses just six times; for context, the Steelers had a whopping 13 takeaways in seven games last year. Even more concerning is that Pittsburgh has totaled just two interceptions, which is awfully close to last in the NFL.

If, like me, you’ve thought that the Steelers are giving far too much cushion when playing zone coverage, you’re not alone – the numbers also support that theory, to an extent. Pittsburgh doesn’t have an outright bad passing defense, but Butler’s contingent is tied for 16th in average depth of target, meaning it’s somewhat susceptible to big plays.

From a more evaluative perspective, players like Bush and Fitzpatrick have had their ups and downs this year. Both former first-rounders have continually improved and returned to past form as the season has progressed, but that renewal of spirit hasn’t come without bumps in the road – whether it’s Bush playing timidly in the run game or Fitzpatrick being just a tad off in coverage.

For as good as the Steelers’ defense has been, it feels like Pittsburgh is lacking those wow plays that really define a game.

General Evaluation

Has the Steelers’ D been bad, per se? Given the magnitude of players that are injured, that would be an unfair assessment.

Frankly, Butler’s unit has performed solidly all season. Pittsburgh hasn’t played lockdown coverage, but the Steelers’ opponents have just a 37.9% 3rd down completion rate, which is 8th-best in the NFL – in other words, Watt & Co. stifle offenses in general passing situations.

Considering that certain cornerstones are still rounding into form, not to mention important injuries, having a defense that is 7th in Pro Football Reference’s Expected Points Contributed by All Defense metric is generally promising – as is the Steelers’ recent defensive performance.

Without question, the Steelers’ haven’t been the best defense in football this season, a title that Tomlin and Butler have relinquished thus far. Squads like the Bills, Cardinals, Panthers and Saints could all vie for that award.

But without Melvin Ingram-related drama and more overall cohesion, this coterie very well might be hitting its stride at the right time.