The Pittsburgh Steelers, at least statistically, had one of the absolute top secondaries in the NFL during the course of the first half of the season. Sure, some of that had to do with the quality of opponent that they faced, and they also got away with a few costly mistakes by the offenses, such as dropped passes, but the improvement in play from the years prior was apparent.
The second half of the season has not been quite the same. Through the first seven games, the Steelers allowed just 1029 passing yards, averaging just 147 passing yards allowed per game, and even after an ugly game eight, they were only averaging 180 yards per game.
They have allowed a total of 1777 passing yards over the course of the final eight games of the regular season, and the game against the Houston Texans, after the team lost their first and second quarterbacks—and then for a brief time, their third quarterback—was a massive aberration, allowing just 51 passing yards.
Overall, they allowed 222 passing yards per game, an increase per game of more than 40 yards from the first half of the season to the second half. In six of the eight games, they gave up more than 200 passing yards, and in a seventh, they allowed 196 passing yards.
While they never allowed 300 passing yards—and only did so once all season—their struggles playing the pass on a per-play basis has been an issue to monitor over the past couple of months. And now they prepare to head into the postseason.
The Steelers have to hope that the primary cause for that 23 percent increase in passing yardage allowed—and the other negative increases that have gone along with it—was the absence of Joe Haden for the majority of that span.
A huge late free agent addition just before the start of the regular season, Haden helped solidify the Steelers’ secondary, but he suffered a fibula fracture in the ninth game of the year and did not return until the final two games of the regular season.
Even with him on the field last week, however, the passing defense gave up 272 yards through the air for DeShone Kizer, minus the substantial lost yardage that he took on the Steelers’ six sacks. While that might not be the biggest concern against Blake Bortles, Tom Brady is likely on the horizon after that.
In truth, the biggest reason for the Steelers’ overall improvement in coverage has been the improvement in the pressure that they have applied on opposing quarterbacks. Beyond the franchise-record 56 sacks, their pressure has been among the most consistent in the league. That pressure has to be at its peak over the next three games to help hold this secondary together.