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In years the Steelers have been the most successful, it’s been about the defense

When looking at the Steelers league rankings every year on offense and defense, it’s the defensive side of the ball which stands out.

Denver Broncos vs Pittsburgh Steelers

When looking up various statistics to answer questions posed for the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, many times I come across information which pops out more than I had realized in the past. Continuing to outline some of these things, it was very interesting when I was asked the question about years where the Steelers had both a top-five offense and defense in their rankings among NFL teams.

Before getting into the rankings, it’s important to know that the NFL rank teams is based on the yardage statistic. Offenses that are ranked number one in the league have gained the most yards while defenses who are ranked the top in the NFL surrendered the least amount of yards. While points scored and points surrendered are also sometimes used for these calculations and will be referred to at times, the ultimate rankings will be done by yardage.

To answer the original question before getting too far into things, the Steelers have been ranked in the top five of the NFL in both offense and defense five times in franchise history. I would argue two of those occasions don’t really count but should be mentioned just because they technically fit the criteria. The first time the Steelers ranked in the top five in both offense and defense was in 1942 where they were the fourth-ranked offense and the third-ranked defense. The reason this shouldn’t necessarily be included because there were only 10 teams in the league at the time and therefore were only ranked in the top half. The Steelers went 7-4 that season and did not make the playoffs.

The next season the Steelers finished in the top five in both offense and defense was in 1958 when they were third in offense and third in defense. Even then, they were only 12 teams in the NFL. The Steelers went 7-4-1 and finished third in their division and did not make the playoffs.

Once the NFL merger shot the number of teams up to 26 in 1970, the Steelers managed to finish in the top five in both offense and defense again in 1979. It was the only season in the Steelers franchise history in which they finished with the number one offense in the NFL. Adding on the number two defense, the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons.

The Steelers also finished in the top five in both offense and defense in 2001 when they were third in offense in first in defense. Even though they were third in yardage for offense, they were seventh in the NFL in scoring offense and third in scoring defense. This team went 13-3 and lost in the conference championship.

The only other time the Pittsburgh Steelers finished in the top five for both offense and defense in the NFL was in 2017 when they were third in offense and fifth indefense. This was for a most disappointing season after the Steelers went 13-3 only to lose their first playoff game. It should also be noted that the Steelers were outside of the top five when it came to points for both categories as they were eighth in offense and seventh in defense.

Now that we’ve got the original question out of the way, it was very telling how the Steelers ultimately had success, not just during the regular season, and how their ranks fall in the NFL. It every Super Bowl appearance for Steelers, they had a top five defense. As for offense, it was all over the place. Only one Super Bowl appearance had the Steelers with a higher ranked offense then their defense—the 1979 season where the Steelers had the league’s top offense which was previously mentioned.

Not only were the Steelers a top-five defense every year they made the Super Bowl, they were also top-five in points surrendered in all but one appearance. In 1995, the Steelers were ranked ninth in points surrendered in the NFL when they made it to the Super Bowl.

In the four Super Bowls the Steelers made during the 1970s, the worst offensive rank was eighth in the NFL in both 1974 in 1978. In 1975 the Steelers were the seventh ranked offense. In 1995 the Steelers were the sixth ranked offense in the NFL while making the Super Bowl.

When it comes to the Steelers three most recent Super Bowl appearances, the offense was not even ranked in the top 10 in the NFL. When the Steelers won the Super Bowl in the 2005 season they were the 15th ranked offense while their most recent Super Bowl victory in 2008 they were ranked 22nd. Even when the Steelers made the Super Bowl in 2010 they were the 14th ranked offense in the NFL.

So when it really comes down to it, especially in the last 20 years, the Steelers reaching the Super Bowl was all about having one of the league’s elite defenses. Needless to say, every time the Steelers had an elite defense it did not mean they would make the big game. In fact, the Steelers had the leagues top ranked defense in 2001, 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2012 and did not reach the Super Bowl. So looking at the defense being tops in the NFL doesn’t mean the Steelers will make it, but when they do make the Super Bowl it is a very large factor.

Before finally letting this whole notion go, there is an overall trend that the Steelers have had more successful teams win their defense ranked higher than their offense. It was not very often when those two categories were flipped, but when they were it did not equal a championship. In fact, the problem with many of those teams was the fact the defense had disappeared. While many Steelers fans complain about the Steelers “wasting talent,” particularly through the Killer B’s era, it was average (or worse) defenses that stand out in those seasons. In fact, from 2013 through 2016, the Steelers defenses ranked no higher than 12th with a low ranking of 21st in 2015. This came after 13 straight seasons of being ranked in the top 10. So even though the Steelers had “talent” (which every NFL team obviously has as it is professional sports), their excellent offenses were held back by defenses which did not live up to the standard.

To finish up, it should be noted that offensive an defensive ranks are in no way predictive as to the ultimate success of the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are rankings that come in after the season is over and help in measuring how successful the team may have been. And although these ranks tell us a lot, what ultimately determine success is wins, including the postseason, and Lombardi trophies.