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2016 South Side Questions: Is Situationally Successful Defense Enough?

The regular season is here, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking their practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the real work is now upon us, there is plenty left to be done.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they wade through a regular season in which they are, at least supposed to be, among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Question: Is situational success on defense sustainable for a championship team?

In the season opener, the Steelers defense allowed the Redskins’ offense to efficiently accumulate 384 yards up and down the field through 60 minutes, doing so at seven yards per play run, on average. The problem is that, while their offensive numbers may have been efficient over that span of time, they were not timely in and of themselves.

The Redskins struggled significantly in situationally significant ways, such as failing to convert on third down. Washington managed to convert only three times on third down on 10 attempts, and they also failed to come up with a fourth-down conversion on two tries.

They also got into the red zone four times, which is more than even the Steelers got into the red zone during the game, in spite of the fact that they scored five touchdowns on offense. Washington, however, only converted one of those four trips into the red zone into a touchdown, and they were successful in doing so on only one of their two goal-to-go situations, one of which resulted in a turnover.

Speaking of turnovers, the Steelers defense was able to turn the ball over twice with two interceptions, and they also forced a fumble, even though Washington was able to recover the ball.

Most important is the fact that the defense only allowed them to score 16 points. Only six teams scored less during the opening week, and four of them were in two low-scoring games in which the winning score was 12 and 13 points.

Situationally successful defense is certainly a good thing to have, but is it enough, and is it sustainable throughout the course of a season? The Saints defense that won the Super Bowl in 2009 was the sort of opportunistic defense that at least proved the concept.

The Steelers did fail to record a sack in the opener, after recording 48 last season, and that could be a concern. Low third-down conversion rates, turnovers, and, obviously, quality red-zone defense are key benchmarks defensively, but is ultimately no full substitute for simply good defense.

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