The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is playing at a level that we haven’t seen from them in years. Not only do they lead the league in takeaways with 30 in 12 games, they are on pace to once again break their own franchise record for sacks, which they just broke two years ago. Especially since the acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick, they have, overall, put up some of the best numbers league-wide.
Have they surprised themselves by their own success? “Not really”, said T.J. Watt, who may be more singularly responsible for the turnaround the group has taken in 2019 than any other one player, and is perhaps one of the leading candidates to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award, last won by a Steelers in 2010 by Troy Polamalu.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything, but I know the guys in this locker room, and I’ve seen these guys practice and I see us practice as a unit”, he went on to say. “We’re just getting better each and every week, and the further on in the season we get, the more time we spend together, not only on the field but off the field as well, we really build team chemistry, and we’re just so happy to see guys make plays. It doesn’t matter who’s making the plays, as long as someone is. Guys are stepping up at the right times. We’re doing this stuff in practice, so it’s not very surprising to us”.
With his 12 and a half sacks, Watt is on pace to break the Steelers’ single-season individual sack record, set by James Harrison in 2008 when he recorded 16 sacks. He also won the Defensive Player of the Year Award in that season.
Aside from his sack production, he has also produced five forced fumbles and an interception, and has recovered several fumbles as well. He leads the league in quarterback hits, to boost, and has been one of the most consistent generators of total pressures league-wide.
But he hasn’t been doing it alone. Bud Dupree is having a career year, while others like Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush, the cornerback duo of Steven Nelson and Joe Haden, and of course the stalwart Cameron Heyward, have solidified this group into one of the strongest defenses in the NFL.
In an offense without Ben Roethlisberger, with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell already long gone, Mason Rudolph benched, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner missing extended time due to injury—even Maurkice Pouncey suspended for two games—so much of the burden of the Steelers’ success this season has been placed on the shoulders of the defense. They have borne that weight and then some over the past two months.