For fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, expectations for the 2015 defense under Keith Butler were low. Thoughts coming into the season were the team's offense would have to outscore opponents if they expected to win any football games. Although this has been the case at times this year, it has been far from the norm.
The Steelers defense has shown tremendous improvement under Butler this year, and in some key categories as well. The first statistic which jumps off the page at you is the team sack totals. Butler is getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks at a frequent pace, and their 28 sacks through 10 games has them ranked 5th in the league in the category.
Turnovers are also on the rise, a welcome site from the turnover depleted 2014 team. The Steelers have 9 interceptions (tied for 12th in the league), and have forced 10 fumbles (tied for 10th in the league), while recovering 9 of those fumbles.
The cherry-on-top for this Steelers defense is certainly their bend-don't-break mentality as they are the 5th best scoring defense in the league by allowing only 19.1 points per game.
As great as all those statistics are, the team is giving up a ridiculous amount of yards on a weekly basis. They rank 29th in the league in terms of total yards surrendered, and are 22nd in the league giving up 371 yards a game, on average. Fans want to spin these statistics in a positive light stating the team isn't giving up points, which is true, but eventually those yards are going to equate to points.
The current Steelers defense has been kept afloat by timely turnovers. A great trait to put on your resume, but something which will need to continue for this defense to continue playing winning football. Although apologists want to shake off the yards surrendered, it should certainly be a goal for Butler and company to improve upon in the final 6 games of the regular season.
Analyzing the numbers for the defense, the rush defense is certainly their strength. The team ranks 5th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up 93 yards per contest. Such a number would be even better if the team didn't have games where they gave up a lot of yards on the ground, like against the Ravens and Raiders this year.
Where the team focus should be is in pass coverage, and limiting yards gained through the air. The Steelers give up 278 yards through the air per game, which ranks them 27th in the league. For a defense to target one aspect which they can improve upon, it is the pass defense.
The personnel of William Gay, Antwon Blake, Ross Cockrell and "the enigma" Brandon Boykin isn't likely to change anytime soon, so the challenge now is how to improve the pass defense in the final 6 games of the regular season, and possibly beyond.
The team's pass rush is much improved, as stated earlier, and has helped the pass defense from being gashed even more through the air. In the last three games the team surrendered 231 yards to Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals, 301 yards to Derek Carr of the Raiders and 372 yards to Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns. This up-and-down defense might not change much as the season progresses, but the challenge for Keith Butler moving forward is to somehow minimize team's yardage, forcing less long drives by opponents and ultimately giving the football to the Steelers' high-powered offense more.