The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has undergone quite a transformation over the course of the last three years as both newer and younger players have been added. That transformation, however, hasn’t gone smoothly and while I believe that the defense will only get better moving forward, it’s not going to happen by leaps and bounds this season.
If the Steelers are going to end their two-year run of not making the playoffs in 2014, they will only do so if the offense is able to carry the defense.
The defense that Dick LeBeau has orchestrated during his time in Pittsburgh revolves, first and foremost, around stopping the run. From there, it depends on not giving up the big play while trying to keep opposing offenses in more predictable situations based on down and distance.
We need to put an asterisk next to stopping the run, however, as thanks to more and more offenses doing away with a fullback in lieu of either putting a third wide receiver or hybrid tight end on the field instead, they are using run-game alternatives such as wide receiver screens or short, quick slants or out routes on early downs.
Let’s face it, gaining five yards on first down via a run or pass is still five yards and in the process it keeps an offensive coordinator’s playbook wide open as his unit is ahead of the chains.
As the Steelers defense continues to improve in technique, tackling and lining up properly, you can bet that they are going to continue to have a hard time keeping offenses behind the chains and thus predictable. It’s going to take time.
In order for the Steelers defense to start facing opposing offenses in more predictable situations moving forward, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley are going to have to provide them. And by that I mean that they are going to have to start scoring more points and early on in games.
From 2011-2013, the Steelers defense has registered a total of 102 sacks on first, second or third downs and 41 (41.8%) of them have come when the team is up by seven or more points on the scoreboard. 52 (51%) of those 102 sacks came when the team had any kind of lead whatsoever. Of the 31 total interceptions that they registered during that same span of three seasons, 15 (48.4%) came when they had the lead.
So what about without the lead?
From 2011-2013, the Steelers defense registered 28 sacks when either trailing or tied when they had offenses in predictable passing situations on either first, second or third down. What do I consider a predictable passing situation. On first downs, more than ten yards to go. On second down, seven or more yards to go. On third down, five or more yards to go.
As you can see, 69 (67.6%) of the Steelers 102 sacks on first, second or third downs during the last three seasons have come with them either leading by seven or more points or them having opposing offenses in very predictable and unmanageable downs and distances.
So, how have the Steelers done so far this season when it comes to putting opposing offenses behind the chains? Of the 128 plays run against them so far this season, only 43 (33.6%) fit the criteria that I listed above. To make matters worse, 14 of those second down plays were runs against the Steelers defense being as they have yet to prove they can stop it. That leaves 28 (21.9%) plays in which they likely had their best chance at recording either a sack or an interception as the Baltimore Ravens ran on one of those third downs.
If you are looking for a little bit of a positive, the Steelers defense has only allowed two first downs on the 12 third down plays in which opposing offenses have needed five or more yards for a first down in the first two games.
There is the whole chicken and the egg thing here, however, when it comes to the defense being able to play with the lead as they will need to at least get a few stops early in games in order to give the offense an opportunity to score a few times. Regardless, in order for the Steelers to make the playoffs this season, Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense are going to have to score some points until the defense hopefully starts playing better later on in the season.
I will leave you with this one stat to chew on. Ever since LeBeau arrived back in Pittsburgh in 2004, the Steelers are 61-3 when leading by seven or more points at halftime and they’re a perfect 24-0 over the course of the last three seasons and two and games.