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Team Defense: How crucial is it in today’s NFL?

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft and free-agent market, the conventional wisdom suggests emphasizing defensive help. But does this mean the team should pass up an opportunity to bolster its offense?

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Ranked defensively, four out of the top-5 NFL teams during the 2017 regular season played either in the conference championship games (Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars), the Super Bowl (Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots), or both. This fact alone speaks to the continued importance of defensive football. But on the other hand, Super Bowl 52—arguably featuring the league’s two strongest teams—was more like a track meet than a defensive showcase. The Pats and Eagles combined for a total of 1,151 yards of offense, putting 74 points on the scoreboard in a game which featured only a single punt (by the Eagles).

Digging deeper into the defensive stats from this past season, it’s difficult to escape a couple of conclusions. First, as bad as they looked, particularly during the latter part of the season, the Black-and-gold defense finished the season only two spots below the top-5 teams, ranking No. 7. What’s more, Pittsburgh’s defense surrendered only 13 more total points (308) during the season than the Super Bowl champion Eagles (295).

Secondly, we might reflect on the difficulty of explaining how yielding only 13 more points to opponents distributed over a 16-game schedule somehow makes the Steelers’ defense inferior, whereas the Eagles’ defense is widely regarded as staunch. If anything, this should underscore the fact that, nowadays, NFL teams lean far more heavily on offensive firepower than on the capability to stop (or even slow down) the opponent’s offense. If you’re among those who thought, with very good reason, that the Steelers’ secondary was highly suspect this past season, consider the mind-boggling fact that the Eagles surrendered considerably more passing yards (3,637) than the Black-and-gold (3,217).

Granted, the Eagles were better than Pittsburgh at stopping the run. Philadelphia surrendered only 1,267 yards rushing compared to the Steelers’ 1,693. Overall, though, there’s only a scant distance between Pittsburgh’s defense and Philadelphia’s. As for the Patriots, their pass defense surrendered 4,020 yards during the regular season, 803 more yards than Pittsburgh. In fact, the 5,856 total yards surrendered by New England on defense during the 2017 regular season ought to dispel any lingering notion that a shutdown defense is necessary to reach the Super Bowl.

This raises the question of exactly how far the Steelers might be prepared to go during the off-season to fill their most glaring defensive holes, as well as how much they’ll be willing to sacrifice to meet those needs versus drafting quality players on the offensive side of the ball. During training camps prior to at least the past three seasons, Steelers Nation entertained high hopes that a combination of high draft picks and free-agent acquisitions might shortly mold the Black-and-gold defense into a modern version of the fabled Steel Curtain. Yet here we are in 2018, seemingly back to the defensive drawing board and looking ahead with uncertainty, yet still hoping the Steelers will find the right combination on defense.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the Steelers’ offense. Despite being blessed with some of the most talented players in the league, including a Hall of Fame quarterback pulling the trigger, the Black-and-gold offense was anything but an irresistible force for the most part in 2017. As for the Eagles, they certainly didn’t win a Super Bowl on the strength of their defense, which was a veritable doormat in the big game. They did so by matching the Patriots score for score, forcing New England to play catch-up throughout the game.

As NFL stats reveal, Pittsburgh is hardly the only NFL team struggling with the challenges of building a top defense in this Age of Offense. The cumulative impact of rule changes the league implemented to produce higher-scoring, supposedly “more exciting” games for fans has been to relegate defensive players largely to the roles of little Dutch boys, desperately trying to jab their thumbs into the dike to staunch a raging torrent of touchdowns.

But many pro-football fans don’t want to admit the increasingly obvious reality that, nowadays, defense wins the day with less frequency than ever before, even in the league’s premier event. In Super Bowl 51, the Patriots had no defense for more than half of the game, while the Falcons’ defense returned the favor in the fourth quarter, folding like a cheap tent. In Super Bowl 52, rather than taking turns, neither team played respectable defense throughout the game.

So while it’s quite likely the Steelers will use their high, 2018 draft picks to bolster the defense, it’s also important to remember that, for all of its warts plus the horrible injury to Ryan Shazier, the Steelers’ defense nevertheless was nearly on a par with those of the two Super Bowl teams. That’s why, if Pittsburgh has the opportunity to grab a top talent who can help them jump-start an underachieving offense (e.g. a Gronk-caliber tight end), the impact of adding such a player might be vastly more significant than any defensive talent they might acquire.

Yes, defense still matters—but not nearly to the extent it did back in the days of Greene, Lambert and Blount. So everyone can wave their little, picket-fence “Defense” signs until their hearts are content but, for the most part, it’s not going to prevent Steelers’ opponents from driving us mad by converting ridiculous 3rd-and-long situations, nor will it alter the essential reality of today’s NFL. This is a track meet alright, but half of the players on the field are wearing clodhoppers.