Three weeks ago against the New Orleans Saints, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense looked like Swiss cheese getting shredded by Drew Brees and Kenny Stills. While Brees only put up 250 yards on them, he was extremely efficient while doing so, and they got rocked with 143 yards on the ground. The Steelers looked like a team that was destined for a one-and-done in the playoffs if they could even make it there. David Todd aptly described this team as having a “poor defense” with an “erratic offense”. So why has the defense suddenly improved during this three game winning streak?
There are three benchmarks of the Dick LeBeau defense that must be met in order to achieve success: 1) Stop the run, 2) Tackle the catch, and 3) Don’t give up the big play. The Steelers defense couldn’t execute on any of these tasks against the Saints. The Steelers couldn’t stop the run, defenders had poor tackling, and the Saints had 13 plays that went for 10 yards or more. One of the biggest reasons this defense has performed drastically better over the last three weeks is their ability to perform in all three functions.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs in particular the Steelers limited Jamaal Charles to a paltry 29 yards on nine carries. Besides a few passes to Albert Wilson, the defense tackled the catch well, especially against big time threat Travis Kelce. They did give up a pass of 33 yards to Wilson but it was nothing like the double and triple explosive plays they’ve been allowing.
The Steelers defense was also suffering because LeBeau’s defense is predicated on pressure and the Steelers hadn’t had a consistent pass rush. The Steelers didn’t record a sack against the Falcons but were able to get three sacks on Andy Dalton and an incredible six sacks on Alex Smith.
The Steelers also benefited from playing two mediocre or worse offenses (Cincinnati and Kansas City) and a potent offense missing its biggest weapon. Dalton and Smith are basically the same guy: game managers who can’t put the team on their back. So it’s not as if they’ve been beating up on the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
The defensive line has greatly improved with more snaps being given to rookie Stephon Tuitt and less to Cam Thomas. Cameron Heyward is playing at the Pro Bowl level expected of him during the offseason. Perhaps most importantly in stopping the run has been the presence of nose tackle Steve McLendon, who was out against the Saints.
Inside linebacker play has been above the line for the last couple weeks but the outside linebackers really stepped up against the Chiefs with veteran James Harrison back in the lineup. Harrison appears to be playing like he’s 26 instead of 36.
Most importantly of all might be in the turnover department. The Steelers defense forced zero turnovers in their losses to the Saints, Jets, and Ravens. The same defense forced the Bengals to commit two, the Falcons one, and one against the Chiefs. Not that it’s breaking news but winning the turnover battle is crucial to victory.
When the Steelers go into the playoffs the defense doesn’t have to be to the level of the 2008 Super Bowl champions but it just has to be good enough to limit an offense to around 21 points or less and force a turnover or two. If they can wreak havoc on the Bengals again, this team will have a legit shot at making a run at the Lombardi.