In the city of Pittsburgh, when you think about the Steelers defense, you think about any number of impressive units.
The Steel Curtain of the 1970s.
Blitzburgh of the 1990s.
The dominating forces which were Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter and James Harrison (among others) in the early 2000s.
They were all different, yet similar in attitude. The very definition of smash-mouth football and a group that wanted nothing more than to impose their will on the opposition. These defenses were the ones that registered ridiculous stat lines, holding opposing teams to less than 200 yards in total offense. Shutouts which became the norm.
You can sum them up into one word: Dominant.
Can the 2017 Steelers defense find its footing and be the next great unit in team history? Some members of the current unit are suggesting just that, but the word they’re using to describe their style of play might not be “dominant,” but “nasty.”
“We're gonna be a nasty defense,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt told Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the first day of training camp.
“I definitely feel like we have all the pieces to be a top defense this year,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said not long after.
“We have the pieces in place to be a dominant group,” he said. “To be one of the best, that is our level of expectation.”
All of this sounds great, but sometimes expectation and reality are two completely different things. Several factors will come into play determining whether the Steelers’ defense will be able to put together a product resembling a dominant or nasty defense.
If the Steelers’ defense, mainly Ryan Shazier, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, cannot stay healthy, it’s in trouble. Last year, the unit was able to withstand the loss of Heyward, and although they are better equipped to do so in 2017 than in 2016, this unit needs its best players on the field.
While this defense certainly has its warts or weaknesses, they can minimize those weaknesses by creating turnovers. In 2016, the Steelers registered 13 turnovers and 10 fumble recoveries. That translates to 23 extra possessions for the team’s high-powered offense. Create more turnovers and, despite having some vulnerabilities, you’re giving your team a great chance to win.
Stopping the run has been a trademark of the Pittsburgh Steelers for as long as most readers of this fine website can remember. Chuck Noll preached it, as did Bill Cowher and now Mike Tomlin. But in 2016, the Steelers surrendered 100 yards rushing per game. Very uncharacteristic of a Steelers defense, but many will chalk this up to the loss of Heyward and the team fighting to keep their feet underneath them. Nonetheless, making opposing offenses one-dimensional still is the name of the game.
Want to help mask a weaker secondary? Try getting pressure on the quarterback, but I’m not suggesting always sacking the quarterback. Sacks are great, but moving the quarterback off of his spot and hurrying throws can be just as effective to keep a secondary afloat. Ideally, getting pressure with only four rushers is the key to a successful defense. Those aforementioned, great defenses didn’t have to blitz a ton. The defenders won their one-on-one matchups and allowed the back half of the defense to do its thing.
These four factors remain, but after the team signed cornerback Joe Haden, it turns one of their apparent weaknesses into a relative strength. There are still concerns about Haden’s health, and what he has left in the proverbial tank, but he is already a huge upgrade at the cornerback position.
If the Steelers’ defense can do this in 2017, there’s no doubt they’ll be setting the team up for success.