Last August, in the now much anticipated third preseason game--unofficially titled "the dress-rehearsal," where teams game plan, and the starters play extensively--the Steelers defense was man-handled at Philadelphia to the tune of 482 yards in a 31-21 loss to the Eagles.
The starters played into the third quarter, and the night is best remembered for the rare emotional outburst from former safety Troy Polamalu, who lit into his defensive teammates on the sidelines of Lincoln Financial Field and implored them to step up their game. The response generally for the 2014 defense was below the line, as the unit finished 18th overall and 27th against the pass. The same old problems of getting after the quarterback (33 sacks) and taking the football away (21 takeaways) were as prevalent and evident as they were in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Fast-forward to this August and this year's version of the dress-rehearsal, where Pittsburgh traveled to Ralph Wilson Stadium on Saturday to take on the Buffalo Bills in a 4 p.m. start. Not only did the Bills top Philadelphia's offense from last August by posting 542 yards and 43 points, it looked as if the only thing that stopped Buffalo was the end of the game--the defense had 60 minutes to do so and failed miserably.
Included in Buffalo's huge yardage total were gashes of 67, 37 and 27 yards through the air and 41, 22 and 20 on the ground, as Pittsburgh's defense continued an alarming recent trend by giving up multiple big plays with ease.
It is true that Buffalo seemed to be playing with more of a sense of urgency than the Steelers, as new head coach Rex Ryan was still trying to find his starting quarterback out of a trio that included EJ Manuel, Tyrod Taylor and Matt Cassel, who rotated in and out of the game for most of the afternoon. It is also true that defensive starters Lawrence Timmons, Stephon Tuitt and Mike Mitchell all missed Saturday's game with injuries. It might also be a safe bet to assume that new defensive coordinator Keith Butler wasn't exactly tipping his hand as it pertained to how he is actually going to attack opponents once the games start to count in less then two weeks.
However, all of the above would be a little more comforting if it wasn't for how last year's dress-rehearsal played out and how it was basically a prelude to most of the regular season for Pittsburgh's defense.
It would be a little easier to envision this year's unit improving if the ease at which the Bills racked up yardage and points on Saturday wasn't reminiscent of Week 1 of last season, when the defense allowed the Browns to post 265 yards of offense and 24 points in a little over a quarter, after the offense staked it to a 27-3 first half lead.
The outlook for the 2015 Steelers defense might be more positive in most circles if it was easy to forget some of those alarming performances in 2013--including surrendering 610 yards and 55 points to the Patriots on November 3 and following it up two weeks later by allowing the Lions to rack-up 321 yards and 27 points...in the second quarter.
Were there outbursts on the sidelines during Saturday's game similar to Polamalu's last summer? Did linebackers coach Joey Porter give his guys an earful? Did Cameron Heyward step up and challenge his teammates to get better? After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin described many of his young, flailing defenders as "walking dead." Perhaps it's not as stunning for a player to hear criticism from the head coach as it is from a normally meek and mild future Hall of Fame teammate, but one has to wonder if anyone or anything can ever get through to these guys.
With less than two weeks to go before the start of the regular season, Saturday's dress-rehearsal in Buffalo did very little to indicate that 2015 will be a different story for the Steelers defense.