Steelers defense seeks improvement, dominance
After more than a decade of dominance, the Steelers defense lost its swagger in recent seasons.
Fair to say it's back.
“We're gonna be a nasty defense,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said on the first day of training camp.
“I definitely feel like we have all the pieces to be a top defense this year,” linebacker Ryan Shazier, Tuitt's camp roommate, said not long after.
Even usually reserved coach Mike Tomlin got in on the act on behalf of promoting his emerging defense.
“We have the pieces in place to be a dominant group,” he said. “To be one of the best, that is our level of expectation.”
Quite the boastfulness for a unit that has an average NFL ranking for yards allowed of 16th in the 32-team league over the past four seasons since its run of six consecutive top-five NFL defenses was snapped after the 2012 season.
But a closer look shows the Steelers have legitimate reason to believe they can return to the dominant defenses that the franchise has been known for going on a half century.
From 1972-79, the Steelers' average defensive NFL ranking by yardage allowed was 3.8. Between 1992-2001, it was 6.4. Then, a remarkable run between 2000-2012 when it was 3.8 again.
While last season's Steelers defense finished 12th in the league by yardage and 10th by points, during the second half of the season, it was a different story. Over their final six meaningful games (not counting the regular-season finale when many regulars rested), the Steelers allowed an average of 269.7 yards.
Adding in playoff victories against Miami and Kansas City (but leaving out the AFC championship game loss to New England), the Steelers played a half season's worth of games and allowed an average of 268.8 yards in them.
Over the full season, that would have led the NFL by a wide margin.
“Last year toward the end of the year we were playing some great defense,” Shazier said. “We just had to finally get all the pieces together.”
The Steelers defense underwent a transformation in recent years after a decade's worth of its headliners — Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, Casey Hampton, Ike Taylor — began to age.
The team invested some high draft picks in recent years on players who are now the core of the defense: Shazier (first round, 2014), Tuitt (second, '14), outside linebacker Bud Dupree (first, '15), cornerback Artie Burns (first, '16), safety Sean Davis (second, '16) and tackle Javon Hargrave (third, '16).
Two other projected starters (outside linebacker T.J. Watt, '17; end Cameron Heyward, '11) also were first-round picks, and safety Mike Mitchell was a big-money signing in free agency.
The investments are paying dividends as the group has grown together. If Watt ends up the starter at right outside linebacker (a big “if” with James Harrison still in town), eight starters will be 25 or younger, and seven 24 or younger with just Mitchell older than 28.
Aside from Watt, the other 10 projected starters all have at least one (and often times many more) season of starting experience. Williams and perhaps Watt are the only new starters from last season's dominating defensive finish.
“That is the best thing about it — we are young and experienced,” Tuitt said. “That's freaking scary, right? That's scary.”
What could be scarier for opponents is if the defense indeed turns into a top NFL unit and the offense remains the one it has been over the past three seasons (average league ranking: fourth).
The defense's strength, however, for now remains just a theoretical. They will need to perform on the field over a full season.
“There's nothing to prove to anyone else but ourselves,” Heyward said. “We set lofty goals, and we wanna hit 'em. But we are not going to be measured by what anyone else says. We have our goals in mind of what we want to do on the field, and the only way to accomplish that is to go out here and do it. The talking is done. Now it's time to go to work.”