There was a time when the narrative from Pittsburgh Steelers fans was simple: Help is on the way.
When the team was struggling to put pressure on the quarterback, fans were waiting for Bud Dupree to return to the field, which would give James Harrison and others more one-on-one matchups on the opposite side of the field. In other words, it would help the defense force mistakes.
Well, the help arrived, and the defense has been the ultimate catalyst for the Steelers’ current 8-game winning streak.
Some fans like to talk about X’s and O’s when it comes to defense. Cover 2 vs. Cover 3 defensive schemes, 4-3 vs. 3-4, sub package alignments and even more detailed business surrounding the current defensive group. However, what should be noted is just how fast and physical this unit is playing now.
When the 2015 season ended, the Steelers said goodbye to veteran players like Brandon Boykin, Antwon Blake, Cortez Allen and Will Allen. What they added to their lineup was speed and athleticism, almost specifically through the 2016 NFL Draft.
Not only are Javon Hargrave, Sean Davis and Artie Burns making a difference in the defense, they have bought into the system, both on and off the field. They are like sponges soaking up everything this coaching staff, and veteran players, are pouring on them, and it has been a breathe of fresh air for this defense.
No longer do you see running backs getting the edge on the outside linebacker, as Harrison and Dupree are doing more than holding their own. No longer do you see an aging veteran at safety who lacks the speed and athleticism to close on the ball with authority, instead you see Davis flying around making play after play from the secondary. No longer do you see opponents slicing their way through the defense, but almost consistently checking for the next blur of black and gold to come and lay a booming hit which changes the complexity of the game.
Yeah, these players are hitting, hitting hard, and that is their goal. Just listen to what safety Mike Mitchell had to say after the 30-12 win over the Miami Dolphins.
“My mindset from the get-go was to tee off on them. Whoever had the ball, you know, you are not going to be safe. We are out here to tee off on you, and we did that today.”
You could see this in the play of the team defense. Whether it was Bud Dupree’s scary hit on Matt Moore, or the number of times Jay Ajayi was met by a host of Steelers defenders who weren’t trying to just hold him up, but were trying to send him into next week.
There are those who don’t like this brand of football, but when Mitchell was asked if the AFC Wild Card game on Sunday was one of the more physical games he has ever been a part of, his answer was simple.
“We played Steeler football today, and that is what we try to do every game.”
Pittsburgh has long been known as a defensive team, who punishes the opponent. No, this 2016 defense might not be as stout statistically as those tremendous groups in the mid-2000s, but they are every bit as ferocious and hard-hitting as those groups, and have been a large part of the team’s turnaround from their once 4-5 record.
The Steelers 8-game winning streak has been a thing of beauty, and to not give the defense, who has been stifling in the red-zone and creating turnovers along the way, their due is a large disservice to that side of the field.
Kudos to Keith Butler for keeping this unit on track, kudos to specialists like John Mitchell who are keeping the ship afloat without players like Cameron Heyward available, and kudos to the players out their executing regardless of their experience in the NFL. They are the ones who have turned this thing around, and are just two wins away from Super Bowl 51.