No, this is not the second coming of the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. But Sunday night, in a way, felt like the modern day equivalent of it.
In ’76, the Steelers got off to the worst start imaginable for a defending Super Bowl champion. A 1-4 start, the loss of Terry Bradshaw after Turkey Jones corkscrewed him into the Earth. That forced them to call upon Mike Kruczek, a rookie out of Boston College.
In reality, everyone knew who truly had to elevate their game – the defense. And they did.
So did last night’s Steelers.
And yes, I know. It wasn’t to the same degree. Don’t expect this defense to go on the historic tear that ’76 unit did, allowing just 28 points over the final nine games. That’s impossible given the structure of today’s NFL and if we’re stating the obvious but being honest, this group isn’t as good as the Steel Curtain.
But they’re built a similar way. Defense set the tone Sunday night in rookie Devlin Hodges’ first start. They got the party started, Devin Bush opportunistic as always, scooped and scored for the first points of the night on the Chargers’ second drive. The next time they took the field, Bush picked off a Tyson Alualu deflection, giving Hodges a short field to punch it in.
By game’s end, the Steelers’ defense forced three takeaways, two picks and a fumble recovery, while controlling the tempo and physicality of the game. Know when else they forced three turnovers, two picks and a fumble? Kruczek’s first start and the Steelers’ win to get to 2-4 in 1976, a 23-6 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Things got a little dicey at the end, Pittsburgh hanging on to secure victory, but injuries played their role. No Steven Nelson. Joe Haden exited in the final few minutes. TJ Watt was dinged up. Assuming all those players are healthy moving forward, and fingers crossed Stephon Tuitt avoided long-term injury, this defense will be able to lock things down in future situations.
Here’s how defenses win in today’s NFL. It’s not by completely stifling offenses. That’s just not possible. In 1976, opposing offenses were held to under ten points 77 times. Last year? That number fell to 44. Offenses will move the ball, they will put up some points. Denying that is denying reality.
The way you win is by creating splash. Winning in the red zone. Succeeding on possession downs and pressuring the quarterback. Pittsburgh’s defense has proven capable of doing those things. Their 15 turnovers through six weeks match what they did all of last year. They’re near the top in red zone defense and again climbing towards the leaderboard in sacks. It’s what they’ve done in every game, sans the stinker that was the opening loss at New England.
It took the front office investing literally everything to get this defense to step up, including trading a future first round pick for the first time in 50 years, but it’s finally paying off.
That ’76 squad turned around their abysmal 1-4 start, winning their next nine and making it to the AFC Title game. It’s hard to expect 2019 to be the same. Bradshaw came back, Roethlisberger isn’t, and again, want to be crystal clear, this defense isn’t as stout as the one fans saw more than 40 years ago.
But they’re night and day from where they were at a few years ago and have even made a significant transition from last year. More importantly, they’re the strength of this team, the big-play producers, and a lot of fun to watch. As opposed to, like other years, sacrificing your future child before every big drive just to get a stop.
If the Steelers are going to climb back into the AFC North race, the defense will be their catalyst. For once, I have confidence they’ll do it.