One of the biggest themes of the off season and preseason for Steelers fans has been the state of the defense. Between the departure of Dick LeBeau, ascension of Keith Butler, and a slew of new personnel, there has been a lot of speculation and criticism.
There are infinite statistics to examine in pro football when it comes to the defense, but one of the most salient is how well the defense prevents opposing offenses from racking up yards. In other words, defensive yards allowed per game. The bad news is, last year was an exceptionally rough one for the Steelers. The good news is, everyone in the AFC North seemed to struggle as well, and a struggling defense does not always prevent a team from having a dominant season.
Last season, the Steelers allowed an astoundingly ineffective 353 yards per game. While that statistic was horrible, it placed them ahead of everyone but the Baltimore Ravens who "only" allowed 336.9 yards per game. The Bengals were worse than the Steelers at 359 yards allowed per game, while the Browns finished last in the AFC North at 366.
In contrast, the Steelers defense was very effective in 2012, only allowing 271.8 yards per game. That year, the Browns allowed 336, the Bengals 319, and the Ravens 350.9. The Steelers' 2014 performance would have placed them last in the 2012 yards-allowed standings. It's also worth noting that despite the strong defensive performance, the 2012 Steelers finished a mediocre 8-8.
The 2008 Steelers defense only allowed 237 yards per game. That was the year the Black and Gold won the Super Bowl. Does the defense need to be that effective for a team to be in Super Bowl contention? In a word - NO.
The encouraging news is that the Patriots won the 2014 Super Bowl with a relatively weak defense, one that allowed 344 yards per game. The Seattle Seahakws, the runners up allowed only 267 yards per game. So, the Patriots 2014 defense-- one that was on par with the disappointing and much-maligned 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers defense,-- did not stop their team from winning the Super Bowl.
Even more encouraging, the New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI having given up over 375 yards per game during the 2011 season leading up to their 21-17 victory over the Patriots.
The moral of the story: It helps to have a killer defense, but if the Steelers happen to have one that allows a ton of points like the 2011 New York Giants or the 2014 New England Patriots, it does not mean the team cannot be a Super Bowl contender or victor.
The poor AFC North stats in defensive points allowed also works in the Steelers' favor since their super-stellar offense will be competing against defenses that love to give up as many yards as the 2014 Steelers' defense. What does that mean? Perhaps many high scoring games with the Steelers offense picking apart the opposing defense, and the Steelers' defense doing just enough to prevent a loss.
So, is it time to panic about the state of the Steelers' defense? Sure. Go ahead and panic. But, also know that a defense that gives up a lot of yards doesn't necessarily take their team out of Super Bowl contention.
A final piece of advice -- If you want to panic about the defense, feel free. Just don't panic about the team as a whole.