Steelers return to defense-first mentality
For a franchise associated with defense more than any other entity than perhaps the Pentagon, the Steelers' return to prominence this season is encouraging.
Entering their game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers possess the No. 3-ranked defense in the NFL. They are No. 1 against the pass, fourth in points allowed and tied for second in sacks.
Such prominent rankings were a staple that once was taken for granted. Dating to the days of the Steel Curtain, the defense statistically had the upper hand on the offense. It was true in the 1970s under Chuck Noll, continued under Bill Cowher in the 1990s and didn't skip a beat when Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007.
That identity, however, changed in recent seasons. Starting in 2014, the offense started gaining an edge behind Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. For the next three seasons, offense was the driving force to the Steelers success, which included three consecutive playoff appearances and a trip to the AFC championship game last season. Each season, the offense finished in the top 10 and outperformed a rebuilding defense, which had rankings that ranged from No. 12 to No. 21.
It was expected to be more of the same this season with the return of wide receiver Martavis Bryant to the Pro Bowl playmaking trio. Instead, the offense has been slow to find its footing, earning a No. 13 ranking after six weeks and coming in behind 21 others teams in points per game.
The defensive pendulum, however, has swung the other way — back to normal, some might say — with arguably its best showing since the Steelers led the NFL in yardage, points allowed or both five times from 2007-12.
“We don't look at stats, but we do challenge ourselves,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We know we have a high-powered offense that can deliver on any given stage. As a defense, we want to measure ourselves against that.
“We want to compete in practice and want to put ourselves in situations where we get stops against teams that can do a lot, just like our offense can.”
That the defense is ahead of the offense is a good sign for the team's Super Bowl aspirations. Of the eight times the Steelers appeared in the Super Bowl, only once was the offense ranked ahead of the defense. That was after the 1979 season when the offense was ranked No. 1. The defense wasn't too shabby that year, either, coming in at No. 2.
When free agency began in 1993, the Steelers had a better defensive ranking 12 times in the next 13 seasons. After another blip in 2006, the defense regained the advantage for seven consecutive seasons. The continuity extended from Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene to Casey Hampton and Joey Porter to Troy Polamalu and James Harrison.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is reluctant to put this group in a class with those dominant units if only because 10 games remain on the schedule.
“I gauge improvement by a season,” he said. “It's not by a game, or two games or three games. We'll see what happens at the end of the season.”
The early returns are promising, thanks to a mix of young players (Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave) and veterans such as Mike Mitchell, Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt and Heyward.
“We try to be the best defense we can be each week,” said linebacker Ryan Shazier, a Pro Bowl selection last season. “We want to be the No. 1 defense in the league. Sometimes we look at the (rankings) stuff. But, honestly, I think it's more that we just see what we did the week before. We have a bunch of guys now who don't want people to score or get yards on us at all.
“That really has helped us play the way we've been playing.”
Despite the lofty overall ranking, it hasn't all been rosy for the defense this season. The Steelers possess the No. 23 run defense and gave up at least 220 yards twice in a span of three weeks, contributing to losses to heavy underdogs Chicago and Jacksonville.
Then, the Steelers did an about-face, holding NFL leading rusher Kareem Hunt to 21 yards in last Sunday's 19-13 victory against Kansas City, mainly by limiting his opportunities. The Steelers owned a decisive advantage in time of possession and took the lead for good early in the second quarter.
“It's easy to play run defense when you're sitting on the sideline,” Butler said. “Our guys ran the ball great. … That makes a big difference for us in defending the run. A lot has to do with how the whole team is playing and not just us (on defense).”
The top-ranked pass defense has benefited from an improved ability at harassing the quarterback. Where the Steelers had one of the least effective pass rushes in the first half of 2016 — eight sacks through seven games — they are back among the league leaders, getting contributions from players such as inside linebacker Vince Williams, rookie T.J. Watt, backup linebacker Anthony Chickillo and even nifty nickel cornerback Mike Hilton.
“They mix and match,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “Keith does a great job as they put their game plan together and who's going to be the rusher based on particular pressure and changing it up. … It's a matter of who is at the tip of the sword. When their number is called, guys are producing.”
Perhaps it's only a matter of time until the defense gets rewarded as handsomely as its offensive counterparts.
The Steelers have invested heavily in their offense, committing $96.8 million this season to players on that side of the ball compared to $56.5 million on defense. Seven of the top 10 players this year in terms of salary-cap number play on offense.
The payroll could become more balanced in future seasons. Tuitt just signed a six-year, $61 million contract. Shazier will be in line for a big payday next offseason. If they continue a linear development, second-year players such as Burns, Davis and Hargrave could get lucrative second contracts.
This young nucleus, which includes first-rounders Watt and Bud Dupree, gives the Steelers a chance to put a dominant defense on the field for future seasons.
“They have guys that run hard to the football, apply pressure to the football,” said Lewis, a linebackers coach with the Steelers in the 1990s. “It's very true to what has been going on for 20 years.”
In this era of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, the Steelers aren't concerned as much about history as, well, getting a chance to show they are every bit as good as their offensive counterparts.
“We're just playing football,” Shazier said. “If people start recognizing us for our level of play, that would be cool. We have a bunch of superstars on offense. We're going to keep playing football and, if some of the people on defense take over, then maybe we'll get the recognition.
“But right now, we're just playing football.”