I posed the statement yesterday that the Pittsburgh Steelers can realistically expect to have a top-five defense in 2018. Count ESPN Steelers beat writer Jeremy Fowler among those who believe it is possible. In a recent article on the site comparing the top five defenses from last season, he argued that the Steelers were capable of achieving that feat.
Technically, they were a top-five defense just last season, at least by the most most-widely cited metric for such statistics, which is yards allowed. It’s worth remembering that fact when we talked about how ‘bad’ their defense was a year ago. They also finished seventh in points allowed per game, and had the most sacks.
The Steelers ranked fifth in the NFL last season in allowing 306.9 yards per game during the 2017 regular season. Only three teams allowed fewer than 300 yards per game. They also ranked fifth in passing yards allowed with 201.1 per game. Again, only three teams allowed fewer than 200 passing yards.
Can they put up similar statistics this season, even without Ryan Shazier? It will take a lot of things going well, Fowler suggests, but he thinks they “have enough firepower to contend for a top-five defense yet again”.
He started out by pointing out how much the run defense suffered once Shazier—and Tyler Matakevich—were lost for the final month of the regular season, and noted that Jon Bostic will not replace Shazier even if he can be productive.
But he complimented their pass-rushers, focusing on the pair of defensive ends in Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, the former of whom was a first-team All-Pro in 2017 after producing a career-high 12 sacks, tied for the second-most by a Steelers defensive lineman in team history. Tuitt is coming off an injury-plagued season and should have a much bigger impact this year.
Fowler also placed emphasis on the secondary and how they will struggle to even get their rookie first-round pick, Terrell Edmunds, on the field simply because of how deep they now are following free agency, the draft, and internal development. “They have at least four capable corners”, he said, in addition to a top draft pick and a free agent starter at safety.
The question marks come in the middle of the defense, where the reporter had to concede that the Steelers “are hoping for major jumps from outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree”. Watt had a good season last year, but that is judging on a rookie scale. He needs to be even better. And Dupree wasn’t even as good as Watt was.
Then there is Vince Williams, who is entering his second season as a full-time starter, and seventh overall. He had eight sacks and an interception last season. He likely won’t repeat that pass-rushing performance, but he should be even more comfortable running the show—or helping Bostic run it—this time around.