Yesterday we looked at five areas of the game where Pittsburgh is currently struggling to perform at a high level, and how those areas need to improve or change moving forward this season. Today we’ll look at five aspects of the game Pittsburgh has excelled at during the first ten games of the season, and how they’ll need to be sustained in order to compete for a Super Bowl title.
1. Red Zone Defense
The Steelers have been a bend, but don’t break defense for much of the season, currently ranked 11th in the NFL in touchdowns allowed per red zone trip, permitting six points just over 51 percent of the time. At home that number drops to 42.8 percent, which ties them for fifth in the NFL. Of the Steelers nine interceptions this season, four have come in the end zone, including two from Mike Mitchell.
The Steelers secondary is going to give up yards, period, and eventually being forced to blitz consistently in order to pressure the pocket is going to come back to bite you against good quarterbacks. However the ability to buckle down in the red zone has allowed the Steelers defense to stay creative attacking the quarterback and aggressive as a unit. If they can continue to be stingy giving up touchdowns, the Pittsburgh offense is more than talented enough to match opponents’ field goals with touchdowns.
2. Pressuring the Quarterback
I’ve written a lot about this topic on Steelers Depot, but my favorite thing that Keith Butler has done as defensive coordinator is find creative ways to get after the quarterback. Plenty of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz staples are still in place of course, but Butler hasn’t hesitated to use all 11 players on the field as possible blitzers, sending a defensive back on at least one blitz in every game but one, if I recall Alex Kozora’s charting correctly.
The Steelers don’t have any elite individual pass rushers, but they have a plethora of capable ones. 11 different players have recorded at least one sack, led by Stephon Tuitt’s 4.5, and eight defenders have notched two or more. Pittsburgh’s 28 sacks are tied for eighth in the NFL, and 11th in quarterback hurries at 64. Both numbers will need to continue to grow this season if Pittsburgh is to have success defensively.
3. Martavis Bryant
Bryant’s sophomore campaign has been all over the place, with plenty of big plays combined with plenty of costly mistakes. He still drops far too many passes and can struggle to track the ball cleanly, but his athleticism and pure speed create an equal number of splash plays. Bryant is still as dynamic a scoring threat at receiver as there is in the NFL, with five touchdowns in 22 catches this year.
Bryant’s presence in Pittsburgh’s offense is so important, as he gives them a big play threat every time he steps foot on the field. His existence has helped negate some of the Steelers red zone and goal-to-go woes, as well as open things up for Antonio Brown and Heath Miller in the passing game. He’ll need to continue to be a dynamic weapon down the field for Pittsburgh’s offense to maximize their potential.
4. Mike Mitchell
Pittsburgh’s defense was gutted by big plays all of last season, many of which were the fault of Mitchell’s overaggressive nature. This year has been a night-and-day difference for the veteran safety, who leads the team in interceptions with three, and has missed only five tackles while forcing two fumbles as well. His physical mentality and edgy style of play has carried over into the rest of the secondary, a group that is playing confidently despite their limitations.
The prevention or allowance of big plays isn’t always on the free safety, but Mitchell’s stellar play will certainly aid Pittsburgh’s defense greatly in continuing to force teams to move the ball methodically against them. Also hard to mention the red zone defense without crediting Mitchell, who just a week ago knocked away two passes in the end zone and intercepted another, thwarting three separate Cleveland drives. Mitchell must continue to play at a high level and not revert back to his 2014 form if the Steelers secondary is to stay glued together as a unit.
5. Forcing Turnovers
The Steelers have forced an average of 1.8 turnovers per game (T-8th) this season, including nine in their last three games. This may in fact be the most important strength of the defense moving forward, as the four red zone interceptions I mentioned earlier all foiled sure scoring drives at key moments in the game. The defenses ability to come up with big plays as a unit has been critical, especially given the time heavy injury losses the offense has faced. When it comes time to play the other top-tier teams in the AFC, the ability to create turnovers will be a critical battle that Pittsburgh’s defense must continue to win to be successful this season.