The Steelers' defense was savaged on big plays throughout the 2013 season. This year was supposed to be a rebound from that and, by and large, it has been. Or perhaps the needle of definition has simply shifted a bit.
The trend in the NFL is to something shorter, a more complete set of higher-percentage throws. The reality is, the Steelers defense couldn't keep up with the big-play production of their opponents last year. Now, they're being nickel-and-dimed to death.
According to NFL Savants, the Steelers have allowed 32-of-49 completions on what the site describes as "short" middle, left and right throws, gaining 223 yards (4.55 yards per attempt), comprising of an eye-popping 84.5 percent of the passes against them through two games.
At first glance, it wouldn't seem like those stats are really all that impressive. The 4.5 yards per attempt usually seems like a winning number for a defense, but when a team is completing such a high percentage of those passes (65.3 percent), it can, to a certain degree, serve as a second running game. For example, if a team were to rush 32 times and gain 223 yards, they're running extraordinarily well on the ground. Add in the remaining 17 hypothetical carries for 0 yards, and you can probably imagine the result might look a lot like the Steelers' first two games - stretches of dominance followed by long strings of possessions allowed.
Perhaps more than anything, these numbers bear out the importance of turnovers - as if this needs to be explained to a Steelers fan who has watched this team dutifully over the last three seasons. Teams aren't even bothering to challenge the Steelers deep anymore. Only nine of 58 throws have been of the deep variety, with the one big play coming from Cleveland's Jordan Cameron in Week 1. Instead, what we're seeing is the same kind of methodical, execution-based approach used by successful rushing teams a generation ago.
What used to be death by the sword is turning into death by the pin. The Steelers' defense needs to figure out both how to force turnovers and how to prevent short passing from dominating time of possession - Baltimore held a 35-25 time-of-possession advantage while only outgaining the Steelers 323-301. Three turnovers will do that but, more importantly, no turnovers by Baltimore plus a steady diet of short completions drives it home.