One of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ biggest weaknesses last season was closing out games, and that primarily fell to their defense. They gave up 14 touchdowns in the fourth quarter during the 2018 season, which was tied for the sixth-most in the NFL, and they also allowed six field goals for a total of 20 scores.
This proved to be costly, as in five of their seven losses or ties last season, they either held or shared the lead entering the fourth quarter. While a sputtering offense sometimes also contributed in those instances, the defense was handed leads five times that it could not hold on to. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler was all too aware of this.
“We gotta stop people the end of the game, in two minutes and stuff like that”, he told Missi Matthews earlier this spring. “We gotta be better defensively in the last two minutes of the game because the games, the way the NFL is now, the games are closer and closer, four points or less people are winning or losing by. There’s a great number of games that [end that way]. That’s the way the league is going, so we’ve got to be good in that aspect of our defense”.
With respect to the two-minute defense that he refers to, the Steelers’ four touchdowns allowed were tied for the most in the NFL. They were scored upon a total of six times in the final two minutes of games. Only the New York Giants gave up more points or allowed more scores in the two-minute defense.
You may recall some of those. It included Drew Brees finding Michael Thomas for the game-winning score in Week 16 with 1:28 to play. Derek Carr connected with tight end Derek Carrier for the winning score a couple weeks prior to that with 25 seconds to play. The Los Angeles Chargers hit the game-winning field goal as time expired. Back in Week Six, Joe Mixon scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:21 to play, but Ben Roethlisberger authored a comeback game-winning drive to bail out the defense.
Not only has the fourth-quarter defense overall been poor, they have been particularly bad when it absolutely matters the most, in the waning moments when the game is on the line. These are the equivalents of a blown save in baseball terminology, and the Steelers lack a closer on their defense.
Will the new pieces that they have added this offseason, plus the continued growth from within, allow this group to finish games stronger than they did last year? They finished off these games in 2017, which is why they went 13-3. They failed to do so a year ago, resulting in a 9-6-1 record.