For as much growth as the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has experienced over the course of the season—and since last season—there is no questioning the fact that there is still a long way to go before they could be fairly described as anything approaching an elite unit.
Perplexingly, they actually remain the most efficient team in the league against the pass, allowing just 153.5 yards per game, and their 5.7 yards per pass attempt allowed is tied for the second-best—behind the Bengals’ 5.6, their next opponent.
Only one team in the league, the Bills, have allowed fewer passing touchdowns than their four, though their five interceptions on the season place them squarely in the middle of the pack. Their 20 sacks share a three-way tie for second-most behind the Jaguars’ 23, and their 72.2 quarterback rating allowed is fifth-best.
Sure. Fifth-best. But against whom? DeShone Kizer in his first-ever start, Case Keenum, a backup, in his first start with a new team, Mike Glennon, who has already been benched, Joe Flacco, who has been spectacularly bad with the second-worst quarterback rating in the league, Blake Bortles, who is Blake Bortles—and finally, an actually good quarterback, admittedly, in Alex Smith. Did I really just write that about Smith? Boy, times have changed.
The point is, the passing numbers may look good, but they’re not going to stay that way when they have to face some tougher opponents. And part of the reason that they look as good as they do is because they have been taken advantage of more often than not on the ground.
Which is why it’s not particularly surprising that Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers’ defense 19th in the league through the first six games of the season, noting the performance of veteran Cameron Heyward as the highlight to date of their unit.
“The Pittsburgh defense is an enigma”, the Steelers’ entry begins. It talked about the fact that “no team runs man coverage less than Pittsburgh, and in fact they are not even close to the next team in terms of how little they do it”.
They were perplexed by the fact that “their best pass-rusher is likely still James Harrison, who has been kept in a padded box on the sideline for much of the season ready for deployment in times of need, and has just 22 defensive snaps so far”.
They did credit the fact that “Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt up front form an imposing duo on the front line”, though I would throw Javon Hargrave in there as well. It is interesting that there was no mention at all of the secondary, but one can argue that they have yet to be seriously tested. I will be curious to check on this update at the end of the year to see how things have shifted.