Steelers defense embraces pressure of ‘being reason why we win’
It was four years ago a Pittsburgh Steelers offense, featuring a litany of Pro Bowl talents and multiple future Hall of Famers, publicly pledged its goal to score 30 points per game.
On Thursday, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made a similar declaration.
“My thing is,” Butler said, “if we can keep them under 17 points a game, then we have done a decent job.”
It was an offhanded comment similar to the nonchalant ones that former offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made in 2015 and ‘16 about aiming to score 30. But that the Steelers’ publicly expressed goals have changed from outscoring opponents to not allowing them to score carries some telling symbolism for an organization that has quickly done an about-face with its identity.
“I just think we have to be catalysts for why we win,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said of his unit. “We can’t hide behind that we’ve got missing pieces on the other side of the ball. We have to be the ones responsible for getting the job done.
“I don’t think we shy away from letting the pressure be on us and being the reason why we win.”
The defense is why the Steelers (4-4) have remained in playoff contention heading into Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams. While the turning point from an offensive-oriented team to a defensive one was gradual and began with the departures of former All-Pros Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, it probably hit its breaking point Sept. 16.
Within hours, two pieces of stunning news altered the trajectory of the season, if not the entire franchise: it was announced franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would miss the remainder of the season because of an elbow injury and that the Steelers had traded a future first-round pick for Miami Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
The first bombshell all but ensured the offense was no longer going to be capable of carrying the load; the latter jaw-dropper made it more possible the defense could.
“(Roethlisberger’s injury) just put a little more pressure on us,” outside linebacker Bud Dupree said, “and that kind of makes the hair stand up on your arm when you know you are getting called out like that.
“We’re just trying to make as many plays as we can just for the offense. Ben is out, so we know we have to make sure we pick up the slack.”
"We are all just around the football. A bunch of ball hawks. We are trying to punch the ball out, tip the ball up, just not let it fall to the ground, just try to help this team any way possible."https://t.co/hOcBpFUse0
— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) November 4, 2019
Since Fitzpatrick arrived, the Steelers defense leads the league with 20 takeaways. They are allowing 4.5 yards per play in that span, which would rank tied for second in the league over the full season. They would also rank fourth in yardage allowed (299.0) and tied for sixth in points allowed (18.0) using their six-game stats.
“I think we are one of the league’s best defenses,” rookie linebacker Devin Bush said.
Bush’s statement was one any Steelers defender could have uttered for almost any part of about a two-decade span between 1993-2012, when the Steelers led the NFL in fewest yards or points allowed 10 times and finished in the top three of one of those categories 19 times.
Between 1993-2013, the Steelers ranked higher among their NFL peers in total defense than offense 19 of 21 times. From 2014-18, the Steelers offense has ranked higher than their defense.
That almost certainly will change this season, with the Mason Rudolph-led offense sitting at No. 28 in the NFL at the halfway point.
Still, between 2015-2018, the average NFL ranking for the Steelers offense was seventh and their average rank on defense was a respectable 11th.
“I think we’ve always been a good defense; it’s just that with the offense going through what they’re going through, losing ‘7,’ it opened up an opportunity for us to lead the way,” veteran inside linebacker Vince Williams said.
“Now, it’s just kind of, I guess, more obvious because we don’t have the high-powered offense that we usually have.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .