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Artie Burns, and the young Steelers defensive secondary, will have to step up in 2017

The success, or failure, of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense will likely hinge on Artie Burns and his fellow teammates in the defensive secondary.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The development of Artie Burns is going to be critical to the Steelers improving on defense, if the team is truly going to implement more man schemes in 2017 as Burns recently suggested.

DVOA, or Defensive Value Over Average, is a statistic which basically calculates how much better, or worse, a player or team does in a given situation than an average player would, with 0% representing average. It’s more reliable than traditional yardage measures used to rank players and teams because it takes situational football and the strength of opponents into account. For example, Le’Veon Bell had a 17.4% DVOA, which means that Bell did about 17-percent better per play than an average running back would have done facing the same situations.

You can read more about DVOA, including the methodology of how it’s calculated, and some of the strengths and weaknesses here.

DVOA can be applied to team stats as well. For example, a team that gets out to a big lead in a game, then proceeds to play lackadaisical coverage and give up tons of yards will be penalized in yardage rankings by virtue of giving up the free yards. DVOA however, won’t penalize the defense as much for giving up so called “garbage time” plays.

Overall, the Steelers’ defense ranked 11th in defensive DVOA with -4.7%. On defense, it’s obviously better to have a negative DVOA, as it means the Steelers were held opponents to less yards than the average defense would’ve.

11th in defense isn’t bad considering the young players that had to play prominent roles, and some of the injury issues the team faced. However, there were some glaring issues the further one dives into the numbers.

When broken down into specific players, the Steelers had the worst DVOA rating of any defense against number one receivers. On average, teams’ number one receivers gained about 70-yards per game. Against the Steelers, they averaged over 85-yards per game. A huge caveat here can be made that the Steelers secondary was very young, generally played a lot of zone coverage, had to deal with injuries, was affected by lack of a pass rush at times, and played better as the season went on. All of those are valid points that can’t always be quantified in ranking like this.

That being said, the Steelers need to find a way to cool off offenses’ best receivers. By DVOA, the Steelers were the third best defense against teams second receivers and the best against team’s fourth and fifth best receivers. That is an encouraging sign, but it should be noted that those rankings are somewhat misleading as opposing offenses had so much success throwing to the number one receiver. They simply didn’t feel the need to spread the ball around as often as they did against other teams.

Burns was the Steeler’s first round selection in 2016 and saw more action as a rookie than typical rookies do in the Steelers’ system. While he did face a learning curve, like all rookies do, he did show his fair share of promise too. If the Steelers can develop Burns’ game further, and couple it with a healthy pass rush to take pressure off the secondary, the Steelers pass defense could make serious strides and once again find itself ranked at the top of the list like it was in the beginning of the decade.