There were times earlier this season in which it looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers defense would struggle to stop a nose bleed. The defense struggled out of the gate, surrendering 42 points at home to the Kansas City Chiefs, 27 on the road to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and another 26 at home at home against the Baltimore Ravens in consecutive weeks. While the Steelers’ defense allowed over 400 yards in three of their first four games, the unit has rebounded nicely over the last month and it could not have come at a better time, as the team prepares for the season’s second half.
The defense has seen their points allowed per game drop from 29 during the first four games to just 18 points per game during their four-game win streak. Yardage has also been hard to come by during the win streak as the defense is allowing 275.3 yards per game over their last four games. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has also done a good job at patching up the holes in the secondary as the unit went from allowing 304.8 passing yards per game during the season’s first four games to just 210.5 passing yards per game over the last four games. The run defense has also allowed the sixth fewest rushing yards in the NFL and has not allowed 100 total rushing yards since week two.
It has been night and day for the Steelers’ defense when comparing the first quarter of the season to the second quarter. The Butler-led defense has not allowed 300 yards passing or 100 yards rushing during their four-game win streak. Much of the improvement can be attributed to a clean up of communication issues that plagued the team during the first handful of games this season and the injection of sub package defenders put in a position to succeed.
First, Butler completely erased any evidence of cornerback Artie Burns’ existence from the defense as the cornerback has fallen from number two on the depth chart to no defensive snaps over the last two weeks. The third-year cornerback has struggled mightily on the field and has been replaced with veteran Coty Sensabaugh. While Sensabaugh is not setting the league on fire, he has been a more reliable and consistent option than Burns.
Next, the defense has found significant playing time for sub package defenders such as safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker L.J. Fort. Fort has played over 30% of the team’s defensive snaps over his last three games and Burnett has just returned to his role as the team’s ‘dimebacker’. Along with Mike Hilton in the slot, the Steelers have a lot of weapons they could use to counter opposing offenses, a big reason for their four-game win streak.
Lastly, a large portion of the defense’s and secondary’s improvement can be allotted to the defensive line. Over the four-game win streak, Javon Hargrave, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have combined for 5.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hits. This has given more opportunities for linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, who have totaled 4.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits over the last four games.
This revival on defense is coming at a perfect time as the Steelers prepare for the second half of their schedule, starting with the red-hot Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night. The Panthers have won three in a row and five of the last six and are coming in with the NFL’s hottest rushing offense. Led by quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers have rushed for over 100 yards in seven of eight games this season. Their team average of 5.2 rushing yards per attempt is also highest in the NFL.
The Steelers’ defense has looked the part over the last four weeks and now comes perhaps their hardest test – a red hot Panthers offense with the NFL’s most efficient rushing attack on a short week.