After two consecutive rebuilding years of going 8-8 the Pittsburgh Steelers have now made the playoffs two years in a row in 2014 and 2015. However, underneath the surface, these teams weren't very similar at all, especially on one side of the ball.
Anyone who has been paying even slight attention to the Steelers over the last two years can tell you the team's weak point is the defense. Teams have moved the ball against Pittsburgh almost at will, a stark contrast to the Steeler teams that went to two Super Bowl's in a three season span under Mike Tomlin six years ago.
In 2014, the Steelers were blessed with a relatively healthy season from all their big guns - and watched as Ben Roethlisberger led a dominant offensive attack that dragged the defense with it to the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Heading into 2015 the defense, specifically the secondary, was again a noticeable weak spot for the team. Yet, even when Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, De'Angelo Williams, and others went down for various amounts of time the Steelers continued to win and were one of the serious championship contenders of the 2015 season.
The Steelers finished the 2014 season as the 18th ranked defense. In 2015, they regressed to 21st meaning they statistically got worse. But, as I said in my first post on this site, using total yards in order to rank teams is a bad way of doing so. Garbage time yards plus easy schedules can skew the rankings and don't give a clear indication of how well a team really played.
If we look at the DVOA rankings of the last two years, the stats tell a much different story. If you missed my first post or need a refresher, DVOA is a stat that takes game situation and strength of schedule into account when ranking teams based on how well they did compared to the league average. In 2014 the Steelers finished with the 30th ranked defense by DVOA - making them one of the worst in the league. Factoring into this is the fact the Steelers played the fourth easiest schedule and still struggled to stop anyone. In this case the stats backed up what most fans were seeing: The Steelers stunk defensively in 2014.
In 2015 things turned around, though. The Steelers had the 11th best defense playing against the 7th hardest schedule. True, they gave up more yards than the year before, but they did so while facing much better competition and participating in more blowouts which allowed offenses to rack up more yards when the game had already been decided. Think about some of the performances the unit turned in last year: keeping Arizona to only one touchdown, (while Landry Jones filled in at QB), holding the Rams to two field goals, keeping the Steelers in games against the Ravens and Bengals when the offense struggled. Had those games all taken place in 2014 the Steelers probably lose all of them when you recall 2014 saw them lose to such notable powerhouses as the Browns, Buccaneers, Jets (led by Michael Vick) and Saints.
Now the 2014 Steelers won 11 games along with the division title compared to the ten games and the last wildcard spot the 2015 Steelers won. Had the Steelers lost to the Browns on the last day of the season and missed the playoffs last year would I honestly tell you I was happier about that team than the 2014 team that over achieved and made the playoffs for the first time in two years? No, of course not. Would I rather be the 2007 18-1 Patriots that put up mind boggling statistics then lost the Super Bowl to a ten win New York Giants team? Again, never. I'd rather the Steelers luck their way to a Super Bowl than excel statistically and lose. But when assessing the future of both teams objectively, I feel more encouraged about the progress the Steelers have made heading into 2016 then I did about the team headed into 2015. So if the 2015 Steelers really were better than why did they lose more games than in 2014? Bad luck, specifically the kicking game. If the Steelers have a capable kicker they beat the Ravens at least once and get to 11 wins.
In 2015 the Steelers defense showed that while it wasn't the strong point of the team just yet, it could pick up the offense when they stalled in the short term, something that would never have happened in 2014. Several factors helped the 2015 defense improve. Among others there was solid play from young players, a healthy Mike Mitchell, and a change in defensive scheme going from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler. If the Steelers can get more contributions from their young players, specifically the linebackers and corners, it's not out of the question for the Steelers to field a top ten or even top five defense in 2016 if the improvement continues at the current pace it has. There are still obvious hurdles to overcome. The secondary is still a question mark. Injuries can strike at any time. Mental lapses and just plain bad luck have derailed many teams in the past. Hopefully none of these strike the Steelers a crippling blow.
The Steelers offense in 2016 should still be the strong point of the team and be able to carry the load if necessary. If the Steelers can field a defense that can match what the offense can do that would truly put the 2016 Steelers in a class of serious Lombardi Trophy contenders.