After the Pittsbugh Steelers lost to the New England Patriots 21-28 on opening night of the 2015 NFL season, doubts about the abilities of the team's defense continued from the past few seasons. So much so that some saw the team's legacy of having a solid defense was "dead."
But here we are, a few days away from the team's Week-6 matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, and the Steelers' defense has been performing at an unexpectedly high level. Having a top-10 scoring defense wasn't supposed to be a key feature of this team better known for a high-powered offense.
Instead, the Steelers currently rank seventh in the NFL in points-per-game allowed, surrendering an average of 19 points through their first five games of the season. The team has totaled 16 sacks through five games, tied for fourth most in the NFL, thereby showing that its youth might be the key to bringing back the "Blitzburgh" title very soon.
Keep in mind that, during this time, the Steelers have only had Ryan Shazier, who proved to be a true weapon in his limited time on the field, for one full game. The Steelers' defense has also gone up against two of the top-10 scoring offenses in the league (both New England and Baltimore are among the highest in points per game). Despite surrendering 28 points to the Patriots, Pittsburgh's defense has done the best job of any NFL team at limiting New England thus far in the season.
But what should be noted along with all of these stats is the fact that the defense has had to stand tall in the absence of the offense's leader, Ben Roethlisberger.
Since Roethlisberger was hurt early in the second half against the St. Louis Rams, the Steelers have had to rely on Michael Vick to quarterback an offense full of weapons. While there is no stat that correlates offensive liabilities to defensive prowess, it's something to add to the early accomplishments of the Pittsburgh defense.
When an offense can put up points or sustain extended drives consistently, it provides a much-needed assistance to the defense on any team in today's fast-paced and offensively inclined NFL. Week after week, analysts and fans will point to keeping their opponents offenses off of the field as a key to victory for multiple teams in their matchups against teams with elite and proficient quarterbacks.
Vick hasn't been a turnover machine for Pittsburgh, but he also hasn't helped out the defense. When the Steelers had their early lead against the Rams, Vick only added a field goal to the scoreboard. That's not really a slight to a quarterback taking the field in mid-game against a vaunted defensive front like the one in St. Louis, but it's a reality that, once he's in the game, the defense's margin for error significantly shrinks.
The Steelers' defense did not surrender any touchdowns to the Rams and they made enough plays to close out the victory in St. Louis. The following week saw them force two turnovers against the Baltimore Ravens and only surrender two touchdowns in an effort that nearly yielded victory, if not for missed field goals and a struggling offense.
Against the Chargers, the defense gave up two touchdowns but also scored and kept producing throughout a game where they received little offensive help until late in the fourth quarter. Performances like what happened on Monday night are more typical of the Steelers of old, when the offense would struggle but the defense would keep them close enough to make a comeback possible.
If you're thinking the Steelers defense should rival that of 2008, 2010 or the Steel Curtain days, you forget that those years were so special precisely because units like those are rare and quite difficult to put together. It took years of drafting and development for any of the Steelers' legendary defensive years to become what they were. It's not something you just throw together in an offseason and simply expect to be there.
But right now, the Steelers are starting to see the fruits of their early draft picks. Especially when looking at the front-seven, several stalwart players are impacting games every week. Veterans such as Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Timmons have already established themselves as strong players for the defense, but now they are starting to get more assistance from younger players.
Second-year defensive end, Stephon Tuitt, leads the team with 3.5 sacks and appears to be the perfect partner to help Heyward up front. Second-most sacks on the team come from outside linebacker, Bud Dupree, who has capitalized in his limited number of snaps to earn his spot in the lineup as a rookie. Third-year linebacker, Jarvis Jones, has shown progress this season, highlighted by his performance on Monday night with a sack and forced fumble against the Chargers.
There are several bright spots to this defense's front, but what most worry about is the secondary. But a solid front can shield the secondary's liabilities from being exposed, as past Steelers' defenses have shown. Despite having no players in the secondary drafted higher than the fourth round, their three interceptions and patchwork performance have been at least satisfactory so far this season.
Tom Brady picked apart the secondary's weaknesses in Week 1 but, week after week, they have shown improvement. Now with recent free-agent pickup, Ross Cockrell and undrafted free agent Antwon Blake, the team's secondary has forced an interception for three consecutive weeks.
Prior to the start of the season, I predicted that the Steelers' defense would start to emerge as a force and stop being a liability after Week 8 and start to see its young players lead the way. Though the defense is playing at a higher level than I expected, even expecting for the tide to change on the defense at that early point was considered a stretch by many evaluating the team's personnel.
Moving forward, the team is still looking for players to gel into their roles and improve. Bud Dupree is still learning many of the fundamentals that make for an elite pass rusher but, even so, he has three sacks in five games; a solid average for a defensive rookie. Tuitt and Heyward may become the bruise brothers of the NFL given the way they play the game. All the while, the defense is still waiting on Ryan Shazier to return and be the playmaker they saw in Weeks 1 and 2.
As the season continues, look for the defense to be an asset for this team, barring any significant injuries. But once the offense gets a healthy Roethlisberger back, this could be just the kind of unit this team needs to go deep into the postseason.