Do you recall the 2011 season, during which Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison found himself in the spotlight for multiple hits in the same game that prompted a midseason ‘reinforcement’ and subsequent expansion of the defenseless player protections that help to define the game in 2016?
It was postulated at the time and later on that that was the beginning of the true decline of a Steelers defense that relied upon its ability to serve the role of enforcer with punishing hits, particularly over the middle, that sent a message to opposing players to think twice before crossing a linebacker or safety.
Of course, there was also the whole rapidly aging and deteriorating starters thing, and the following inability to replace them with adequate players thing, but the defense has really begun to turn it around over the course of the past couple of seasons through the draft, and through free agency.
2014 safety signing Mike Mitchell is a key piece of the Steelers’ defense, both schematically and in terms of personality, and he is one of the primary ‘enforcers’ on today’s defense. After Sunday’s game, Mike Prisuta quoted him as saying that hits that dislodge the ball from a receiver are like “handing out business cards, putting the league on notice [that] this is a physical unit”.
And, really, the Steelers had a number of such plays against the Bengals on Sunday, with Mitchell unsurprisingly involved in the mix. Over the course of the past five years, Pittsburgh’s defense has learned to play tough defensive football within tighter restrictions, and these are the fruits of that labor.
The first play what merits highlighting came late in the first quarter, coming on a third-and-six in the red zone, and while it did not dislodge the ball, Mitchell and Robert Golden converged on the running back receiving the dump-off pass and coming up well short of the marker with a physical stop.
If we fast forward toward the end of the half, we have another key moment on a deep target to the tight end on which Mitchell and linebacker Lawrence Timmons converged to jar the ball loose on what would have otherwise been an explosive play that placed Cincinnati in scoring position.
William Gay gave veteran Brandon LaFell a lot to handle over the course of the day, as he gave the wide receiver a couple of shots that either knocked the ball out or prevented him from getting a second stop at securing the catch. The first of those came on the final drive of the first half, with LaFell bobbling a reception attempt over the middle. Gay flew in and cut his feet out from under him with a high-impact yet clean hit that prevented any extra effort to secure the catch.
Gay had an even more commanding shut-down of LaFell early in the second half, this time with a big pop on a third-and-long that separated man from ball on a shovel pass attempt. The 10th-year cornerback was understandably fired up after the play, and gave energy to the whole team.
The offense came back on the ensuing drive to score a touchdown and make it a 17-6 game. When the defense is able to play physically, it carries over across the team, and we saw the defense able to make the most of a few opportunities to enforce their physical will a few times on Sunday against the Bengals, which helped make the difference at the end of the day.