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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Steelers owner Art Rooney's comments about defense come up short

| Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, 9:51 a.m.
Steelers Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt celebrate sacking Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City Mo.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt celebrate sacking Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City Mo.

Many Steelers fans were upset at the cavalier dismissal of concerns surrounding the team's defense from owner Art Rooney II last week.

They should be.

“We have made some investments there that we feel still have upside ahead of them so we need to add people to it obviously,” said Rooney II last week. “But by the looks of things in the playoffs it's not easy to play defense in this league anymore. So it's something that we are trying to adjust to. (There are) A lot of great offenses out there that we have to be ready to match them. So it's always a challenge now.”

Exactly what is the boss saying there?

That the Steelers could be better, but let's not make a big deal of it because his defense was a bit better compared to the other bad ones in the National Football League?

I believed when coach Mike Tomlin said “the standard is the standard”, he meant something higher level than that!

I interpreted that phrase as meaning that the high standard of what the Steelers exemplified is the standard the team was supposed to meet.

Not: “The Steelers should be standard compared to the definition of acceptable versus the rest of the league.”

Frankly, that's not very good.

Frankly, that's not where the Steelers publicly position themselves to be.

When Rooney II said what he did, I'm not quite sure he understood what he was saying.

Much like here in Pittsburgh, out in Philadelphia, the Eagles' defense was lousy against Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. However, it was spectacular versus the Falcons and Vikings during the NFC playoffs.

Philly allowed just 17 total points in those two playoff games en route to winning the NFC.

Meanwhile, New England's defense allowed just one meaningful TD against the Titans in the first round of the playoffs. Plus, it only yielded a pair of field goals in the second half against Jacksonville.

Despite its defensive woes in the trophy game vs. the Eagles, the Pats were at least good enough to get that far on defense in the first place.

Furthermore, take a look at the top five regular season scoring defenses in the league. Four of them were in the AFC and NFC title games.

Granted, Pittsburgh's regular season defense wasn't far off that pace. It finished seventh place in that category.

But in the last seven games — including the Jacksonville playoff game — the Steelers defense barfed up 25.8 points per contest. That would've paced them as the second worst unit in the league overall.

No doubt, much of that was due to the catastrophic injury to Ryan Shazier. Unfortunately, though, who is to say when, or if, Shazier will wear Black and Gold again?

Plus, the Patriots lost a Pro Bowl inside linebacker of their own in Dont'a Hightower after just five games courtesy of a torn pectoral muscle. They won the AFC despite his absence.

Keep in mind, Hightower was a player so talented, the Steelers were trying to pay him a hefty price in free agency before he decided to stay in Foxborough.

On paper the Steelers look fantastic defensively. They finished in the top ten when it comes to overall yardage allowed, stopping the run, stopping the pass, and opposing point totals.

The stats suggest the unit is better than what it is.

But per attempt they were 27th against the run and 23rd against the pass.

The biggest problem is that the Steelers really don't know what they are on defense anymore.

For instance, Pittsburgh set a club record in sacks with 56 . Yet the outside linebackers only accounted for 17. The previous low water mark in the post-Chuck Noll era collectively by that position was 19 in 2014.

What are Steeler OLBs supposed to be these days? Drop and cover guys? Or pass rush guys?

The way they deployed T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, coupled with their inability to figure out a role for James Harrison suggests the Steelers don't even know the answer to that question.

Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward are versatile and talented. But are they two gap run stuffers, or up the field pass rush specialists? Being pretty good at both is nice.

What would be even better, though, is if Pittsburgh had players that were elite at one or the other as well.

Rooney II has a point. It's harder now than it has ever been to play defense in the NFL. The Steelers are better at it than most. But to seek comfort in comparing his club to what other playoff teams did — or didn't — do on that side of the ball is a mistake.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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