The Pittsburgh Steelers have certainly had some great defenses during the Super Bowl era and four of them wound up making the 30 best of the last 30 years rankings that Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders put together for ESPN.com.
Schatz’s rankings are based on Football Outsiders’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) metric and coming in at No. 30 overall is the 2004 Steelers defense with a DVOA of -18.6% and Schatz writes of that unit:
Pittsburgh has ranked No. 1 in defensive DVOA five times, more than any other franchise during this 30-year time frame. This was not one of those years, as there will be two other teams from 2004 listed below, but this Steelers defense rates better than the No. 1 defenses they had in both 1993 and 1994.
Ranked 27th overall on Schatz’s list of 30 is the 2010 Steelers defense with a DVOA of -19.5% and here is what he had to say about that unit:
A phenomenal run defense anchored by nose tackle Casey Hampton, the 2010 Steelers limited opposing runners to just over 3.0 yards per carry and ranked as the No. 8 run defense in DVOA history. The Steelers also ranked third against the pass that season, and both outside linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu were first-team All-Pros.
Next up in Schatz’s rankings as far as past Steelers defenses goes is the 1990 unit. They are ranked 19th overall with a DVOA of -21.6 and Schatz’ has a short blurb on that year’s unit as well.
This Steelers defense was best at stopping the pass. They snagged 24 interceptions and allowed just nine passing touchdowns and a league-low 5.1 net yards per pass. The Steelers limited opponents to single-digit scoring six times. Unfortunately, their offense also was kept to single digits six times.
Rounding out the Steelers top defense over the course of the last 30 years is the 2008 unit with a DVOA of -27.6% and they finished just behind the 2008 Baltimore Ravens defense (-27.9%). Because the two defenses ranked so closely that year, Schatz recapped both in the same blurb.
This was the pinnacle of the defensive rivalry that has defined the AFC North in the 21st century. Baltimore was No. 1 against the run and No. 2 against the pass. Pittsburgh was No. 2 against the run and No. 1 against the pass. The Steelers were the better defense during the regular season, and their average of 4.3 net yards allowed per pass is the best figure of any defense in the past 20 years. But the Ravens move slightly ahead once we consider the postseason because they shut down the Miami and Tennessee offenses in their first two playoff games. The Steelers had the last laugh, however, beating Baltimore 23-14 in the AFC Championship Game and then going on to win the Super Bowl. The All-Pro first team featured two Ravens (Ed Reed and Ray Lewis) and two Steelers (James Harrison and Troy Polamalu).
As stated in the piece, Football Outsiders currently only has DVOA rankings going as far back as the 1987 season so obviously the Steelers great defenses of the 70s aren’t yet accounted for. That would likely be a great undertaking on their part and it’s perhaps even impossible to garner all the stats from earlier than 1987 without getting access to the gamebooks and television replays. It would, however, be interesting to see what the DVOA of those great Steelers defenses of the 70s were just the same as well as several other great defenses of days gone by such as the 1985 Chicago Bears.
In case you’re curious, the Steelers 2016 defense registered a DVOA of -4.7% and that was 11th best in the NFL. While not great, that unit was able to improve that stat during the second half of the season after the rookies, cornerback Artie Burns, safety Sean Davis and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, played more and thus got more comfortable with their assignments.
Will the Steelers 2017 defense wind up being good enough to rank in Schatz’s 31 best of the last 31 years next year at this same time? It’s doubtful, all things considered, but that unit will be expected to lower the DVOA number quite a bit just the same.
In case you didn’t already know it, the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles defense is ranked No. 1 overall in Schatz’s rankings with an astounding DVOA of -42.4. The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are ranked second with a DVOA of -36.7% and I probably don’t need to remind you that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was that unit’s defensive backs coach during that year.