There are those who say that points scored is the only criteria when evaluating a defense.
For the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers, who currently rank 20th in yards allowed—including 21st against the pass and ninth against the run—that’s probably a good philosophy.
Why do I say that? After Pittsburgh’s 28-7 Thanksgiving victory over the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium Thursday evening, that philosophy seems to be hard to argue against, what with the team currently ranked 12th in the league in points allowed, at 20.2 per game.
That average may be a little higher today for the Steelers (6-5), if not for Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano’s decision to go for it twice on fourth and goal from the one-yard line.
Like NBC color analyst Cris Collinsworth said with Pittsburgh ahead, 21-7, early in the fourth quarter after the Colts second unsuccessful try on fourth and one, had Pagano elected to trot accomplished field goal kicker Adam Vinatieri out there on both occasions, the score would have likely been 21-13. In other words, backup quarterback Scott Tolzien may not have felt compelled to attempt a deep pass midway through the fourth quarter that was intercepted by safety Mike Mitchell and effectively put the game on ice in Pittsburgh’s favor.
Had Indianapolis’ deficit only been eight at that point in the game, the need to go for broke may not have been so prevalent. But it was, and why? Because, on two separate occasions—late in the second quarter; and, again, early in the fourth—Pagano tried to test the will of a defense that had mostly proven to be a liability in the Steelers’ 2016 quest to get a second ring for a designated digit on a hand that is currently looking for more jewelry. And it was because that defense, after so easily yielding real estate that had the Colts sitting right on the cusp of pay-dirt, denied his offense both times.
You can thank slot corner/safety Sean Davis and Mitchell, who each stepped up on third down to thwart Tolzien touchdown runs by stuffing him just before the goal line; each stuff set up fourth and one pass attempts that proved to be unsuccessful and denied the Colts any points at all.
If not for a fake punt by Pat McAfee early in the second quarter that set the Colts up at the Pittsburgh eight-yard line, the Steelers’ points-per-game average would be 19.5 today, following an impressive shut-out.
The Steelers have now won two-straight games, and the defense has yielded a grand-total of 16 points and two touchdowns.
You might say, “Well, against the winless Browns and Cody Kessler, and against the compromised Colts, who were missing franchise passer Andrew Luck, even a suspect defense such as the Steelers would have looked good.”
Do you think the 1976 Steelers defense, regarded by many as the greatest in NFL history, would have done much better than eight points a game against the likes of Kessler and Tozien? How Dick LeBeau’s 2008 unit?
You can say what you want about the opposition, but by limiting Indianapolis to seven points and denying it twice from fourth and goal from the one, Keith Butler’s unit, which started three rookies—Artie Burns, Javon Hargrave and Davis—(as NBC pointed out, that was the first time Pittsburgh’s defense started that many rookies since 1974)—showed the world that maybe this isn’t your 2013 or 2014 Steelers’ defense anymore.
The name of the game is not yielding points, and despite allowing 310 total yards to the Colts, Thursday night, Pittsburgh’s defense only gave up one score.
Bend-but-don’t-break philosophy at its most obvious? Perhaps. But the defense didn’t break against Indianapolis on two separate occasions, and that, more than any other reason, is why the Steelers are 6-5 today.