To be sure, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense this season is not on the level of those who led this organization to its second string of championships in the mid- to late-2000s. But there has certainly been improvement, and where they may lack in consistency or sheer dominance, they have compensated with opportunism.
Their 38 sacks through the first 13 games this year is already the most that they have had in a single season since 2010, the last time they have won a playoff game, and they are on pace for about 46-47 sacks for the year.
As a team, they have also induced 21 fumbles, recovering 10 of them, which ranks as the sixth-highest mark in the league. Their 14 interceptions this season is also the most since 2010 and ranks as the sixth-highest league-wide on the year as well.
But there is another curious facet about those interceptions that goes deeper into what they have meant for this defense. They haven’t simply robbed the opposing offense of a possession. They have often shut down a red zone threat, given their offense a short field, or outright put points on the board.
I observed during the game as William Gay ran an interception back 23 yards for a touchdown—the second defensive touchdown of the season—that the Steelers, the cornerbacks in particular, have managed to be efficient in returning those interceptions for meaningful yardage.
Curious, I ran the numbers and found that the Steelers have the second-highest yards per interception return in the league, averaging 19.2 yards gained after each interceptions, which trails only the Denver Broncos, who average a whopping 26 yards, which includes a league-high for pick sixes.
Consider some of the gains that the Steelers have posted this year. The longest of the season, of course, was the one returned for a touchdown against the Chargers by Antwon Blake, who ran 70 yards for the score.
But Blake’s other touchdown, which was picked off in the end zone, was also returned for 42 yards to start the offense out with good field position, especially in comparison to the fact that the Bengals nearly scored on that possession.
Ross Cockrell has had two interceptions this year as well, which he has returned for a combined 62 yards. His first interception was returned for 37 yards and put the Steelers on the cusp of field goal range, while he gained 25 yards on his second interception.
Gay, Will Allen, and Brandon Boykin each gained 20 yards or more on their returns, with Golden’s 27-yard return being the longest of that group.
Considering some of the short returns they have had as well—Mike Mitchell’s three interceptions have gained a total of 16 yards—the fact that the Steelers are still averaging nearly a touchback per return merely serves to highlight how well the defense has taken advantage of its opportunities to flip the field when they have arisen.
Just ask Ryan Shazier and James Harrison if this unit enjoys flipping script from defender to blocker. Both linebackers crushed an opposing player in blocking for Golden’s return on Sunday.
|Kansas City Chiefs||18||338||18.8||3|
|New York Giants||14||206||14.7||2|
|San Frnacisco 49ers||9||125||13.9||1|
|San Diego Chargers||8||106||13.3||1|
|St. Louis Rams||10||131||13.1||1|
|New England Patriots||10||125||12.5||0|
|New Orleans Saints||6||71||11.8||0|
|Green Bay Packers||12||115||9.6||1|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||11||93||8.5||1|
|New York Jets||13||102||7.8||0|