There hasn’t been much to get excited about concerning the majority of the action during Steeler games this year. Points scored, yards gained, and yards allowed all rank in the bottom five of the league. That certainly doesn’t describe a Super Bowl contender, does it? Missing from that list of bottom five stats is points allowed. The Steelers have allowed 20.4 points per game and rank No.13–middle of the pack territory.
Can a middle-of-the-pack defense carry this team into and through the playoffs? That would be a hard NO. But even though the Steelers have held their last four opponents to 20 or less and did the same in the final seven games last year, there’s reason to expect this defense will play better going forward than it has up to this point.
Spend big money, get big results
The Steelers have the most expensive defense in the league based on the percentage of salary cap dollars spent on that side of the ball. The biggest three defensive salary cap numbers belong to TJ Watt, Cam Heyward, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The “Big3” combine to eat up 26% of this year’s cap. While it’s fantastic to have those three All-Pros on the roster, we haven’t seen them on the field together since Heyward left with an injury after 17 snaps in Week 1. The gang is apparently ready to get back to it. Watt has played all year. Heyward just returned to play against the Titans after missing six games. Fitzpatrick missed the Titans game with a hamstring injury, but not one serious enough to place him on IR, with a return to the lineup as early as Week 10 against the Green Bay Packers possible.
The Steeler defense has been built around getting sacks and forcing turnovers. The Steelers as a team and Fitzpatrick as a player led the league in interceptions last year. Watt led the league in sacks two years ago, but a pectoral injury cost him seven games last year. Prior to Watt’s 2022 injury, the Steelers led the league in sacks for five years in a row. Heyward was one of only six players in the league to record 10 or more sacks in both 2021 and 2022. The defensive recipe is for mayhem, and a healthy Big3 is the most important ingredient.
It isn’t an astounding revelation that a defense will perform better when its best players are playing, but can we quantify how much of a difference this could make? Last year the Steelers had nine games that included the full Big3, and eight games where they were missing at least one member. In the nine games at full strength, the Steelers averaged 1.77 turnovers per game compared to .875 in the other eight games—essentially doubling the productivity in the takeaway department.
At full strength, it was 3.33 sacks per game compared to 1.25 without—an increase by a factor of 2.6 for sacks. Should the Steelers experience that same rate of increase over 2023’s defensive output once all three are on the field together, it would result in an average of 6.5 sacks and 2.6 turnovers per game. It would be foolish to assume that what happened last year is going to happen again this year. There are different opponents on the schedule, different players on the defense, and a different role for Minkah Fitzpatrick this year. But looking back at what did happen shows us that some increase in splash defensive plays certainly is within the realm of things likely to occur.
How much can the availability of the Big3 actually affect the scoreboard? Recent history suggests it can potentially help to the tune of 5.7 points per game. Last season, the Big3 played together nine times and the Steelers allowed an average of 17.7 points in those games. In the eight games that at least one of them missed, the Steelers allowed 23.4 points. While other factors may have influenced the 5.7 difference (for those wondering, Watt missed the Buffalo and Philadelphia blowouts, and all three played in both Cincinnati games), even getting half of that improvement would move the Steeler defense up to the No.5 ranking. These projections are based on stats from regular season games. Will it be enough come playoff time?
Can defense alone make the Steelers a contender?
I can already hear you muttering that this isn’t 1974 anymore; that there are high-powered offenses everywhere that you must be able to outscore nowadays; that the Steelers have to be able to score 35 points to beat the top teams; that you can’t get through the playoffs with just a dominant defense; that specifically, in the AFC you will have to beat some combination of premier quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Josh Allen to get to the Super Bowl; and that with their low-scoring offense, the Steelers are destined to lose any playoff game even if they do make it. But these elite offenses aren’t racking up the points like they used to.
-The Kansas City Chiefs have averaged between 28-35 points per game since Mahomes became the starter in 2018 until this year when they are at 23.1 through nine games. They haven’t cracked 21 in three of their last four.
-The Cincinnati Bengals have averaged 26-27 points per game with Joe Burrow at quarterback until this year when they are averaging 19.4. Burrow was hampered by a calf injury to start the season but seems to be back to his usual self. The Bengals offense passes the eye test at this point, but even with it clicking they have put up beatable point totals of 24 and 17 over their past three games.
-The Buffalo Bills currently are on the outside of the playoff picture. Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh are all tied at 5-3 one spot ahead of them, but logic tells us that AFC North teams will have to acquire some losses when they play their upcoming division games and the door will be opened for the Bills. Buffalo has been held to 20 or less in three of their last five games.
Remember how the defense lives for splash plays? Here is what the playoff-contending AFC quarterbacks have on their stat sheets for sacks, interceptions, and total fumbles (not lost fumbles, just potential turnovers). There are plenty of opportunities for the Steeler defense to put a little mayhem into the mix should they face any of these guys. Burrow is the only one protecting the ball well. All the others are throwing it away or dropping it on the ground at a risky rate.
- Patrick Mahomes: 12-8-3
- Joe Burrow: 18-4-1
- Josh Allen: 13-9-3
- Tua Tagovailoa: 14-7-8
- Trevor Lawrence: 19-4-6
- Lamar Jackson: 21-3-10
- Deshaun Watson: 13-3-4 (in 4 games)
- Kenny Pickett: 17-4-1 (Just for reference; I know the Steeler defense won’t face him)
While those are recent regular season stats that are meaningless come playoff time, past playoff performance shows us that any team can be held down in the postseason.
- Last year the Bills, after averaging 27.2 in the regular season, were eliminated when they could only muster 10 points at home against Cincinnati, as QB Josh Allen took one sack and lost a fumble.
- The Bengals (25.7) met their exit when they put up 20 as Joe Burrow took five sacks and threw two interceptions against the Chiefs.
- The Chiefs (29.2) only scored 23 points (Patrick Mahomes took three sacks and lost a fumble) in their AFC Championship win.
- 2021’s playoffs saw the Bengals (26.3) held to 19 (one interception) in a win over the Titans.
- Cincinnati would score 20 in their Super Bowl defeat to the Rams— a game where Joe Burrow threw one interception and took an amazing nine sacks.
- In 2020 the Bills (29.9) posted a 17 (one sack and one fumble).
- The Chiefs (28.5) won with a 22 (one sack and one pick) against Cleveland.
- Kansas City would then lay a 9 (three sacks, two interceptions, one fumble) in their Super Bowl loss.
Even the elite quarterbacks can have bad days when facing an opportunistic defense in the playoffs, and sometimes even a pretty clean day leads to few points being scored. Despite the elite status these quarterbacks have earned, they don’t roll through the playoffs scoring points at will.
The Steelers offense is capable of complementary football
With the Steelers only scoring 16.6 points per game, there’s no way to envision playoff success, right? That assumes that the offense isn’t ready to start producing more points, which I disagree with. First off, the bar for scoring more points has been set pretty low. While we discussed above the effect of the Big3 on the defense’s points allowed, there was also a noticeable difference in their effect on the offense last year. When at least one of them missed the game the Steelers scored an average of 14.6 points. That number was 21.2 when all three played. Again, other factors could be affecting this difference, but a defense that makes more splash plays like sacks and turnovers gives its offense better field position.
Thankfully the 2023 defense has scored two touchdowns and set up a third with a Watt interception return to the 7-yard line because all but one of the other touchdown drives have been long distance—over 70 yards. Shorter fields will be a welcome sight to this struggling unit. There’s also the consideration that if your defense isn’t allowing many points then your offense can consistently stick to its game plan, increasing their productivity.
You may think that this Steeler offense and productivity don’t belong in the same sentence. That too is something that could change very soon. Pat Freiermuth will be eligible to return from his hamstring injury after this week’s game. While his production has been limited by chest and hamstring injuries this year, Freiermuth caught 60 passes each of his first two years in the NFL.
This is a pure “if”, but if the tight end returns healthy the offense will have three legit pass game targets for the first time since Diontae Johnson left in Week 1 with his own hamstring injury. Johnson’s return seems to have garnered the attention of opposing safeties, which has helped unclog the congestion that the running game had dealt with all year.
Gaining a third option with Freiermuth in the mix should be another boost. It doesn’t have to be an other-worldly improvement to help field position by avoiding three-and-outs and help the scoreboard by exchanging a couple of drives that end in midfield punts for drives into field goal range. Freiermuth’s 11 career red zone touchdowns give hope that a touchdown or two happens on drives that would have otherwise ended in chip shot field goals. A little field position here plus a couple of points there can change the makeup of a game and a season.
Remember the Niners
No, we don’t need to remember Steelers’ Week 1 loss against the Niners. That was a burn-the-tape game. I’m referring to the 2022 49ers, commonly believed to have one of the best rosters and an offensive mastermind in Kyle Shanahan calling the plays. Brock Purdy was the headline for San Francisco last year, but he wasn’t the story until late in the year.
The 49ers started their season 3-3 with losses to the lowly Bears, Broncos, and Falcons. They failed to score more than 14 in any of those three defeats. There was a discussion of whether or not the seat should be getting hot for that offensive mastermind head coach. They traded four draft picks for Christian McCaffrey and immediately proceeded to get walloped by Kansas City—losing by 21 at home. Their season was over, right? Of course, we know it wasn’t. They wouldn’t lose another game until they ran out of able-bodied quarterbacks in the NFC championship. The addition of McCaffrey was the flamethrower-style spark that their offense needed. Their 49ers went from 20.3 points in the six games before McCaffrey to 29.8 in 11 games with him. Adding Freiermuth to the Steelers can’t be compared to adding an All-Pro talent like McCaffrey to the Niners, but going from only two pass targets to three should give the Steelers some kind of a much-needed lift.
Another reason I say “Remember the Niners” is that, like the 2023 Steelers, they weren’t getting stellar quarterback play or offensive production at this point last season. They went through injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo before landing with Purdy. Many know that Purdy took over with six games left in the season and never lost. What many don’t remember is that San Francisco had already won four in a row with Garoppolo before Purdy was needed. How does a team that starts 3-4 end up 13-4 and become one of the top contenders to win the Super Bowl while having to use three different quarterbacks? They had a top defense that kept them in just about every game and kept the pressure off of the offense while they improved. The 49ers defense allowed only three teams to score more than 20 points on them all year. That’s the part of their success that the Steelers have come closest to copying. With the return of Fitzpatrick to the Big3, the Steelers may follow that 2022 49ers road map to contention.
Watching the Steelers this year, most fans would say there is no way this team can compete for postseason glory. They can’t go back and change anything about the season’s start, but with Fitzpatrick and Freiermuth they should be getting two very valuable pieces back in the lineup that can change the team’s future. The money spent on the defense certainly can pay off in splash plays that affect games against even the best offenses in the league. Having a 5-3 start to the season has them in position to compete for a playoff spot. Starters returning on both sides of the ball can parlay that positioning into postseason success. It could soon be time to dust off that old bandwagon.
The Steelers’ odds to win Super Bowl 58 are at +9000 on DraftKings Sportsbook, ranked 16th in the league for their chances to win the Big Game. Is that a bet you’d be willing to take with what you’ve seen so far this season? Join our community at Behind The Steel Curtain and let us know your thoughts in the comments!