The Pittsburgh Steelers were at their best during their most recent peak of the mid- to late-2000s when they had standout defensive players as the face of the franchise, who were nearly unanimously recognized as being among the top players at their position in the NFL.
The Steelers in 2019 now appear once again to have collected a few such players—only it’s come in a season in which they missed the postseason altogether, and managed only a .500 record. I think that’s not a reflection so much of the changing nature of the game, but simply to the below-the-line play of the offense minus its franchise quarterback, helmed instead by a pair of total novices at the position.
Be that as it may, the disappointments of the season should not overcast any opportunity to celebrate the fantastic play of some of the team’s stellar defenders, who could be in for further honors as the season progresses to its conclusion. They already have three in the Pro Bowl, and All-Pro—even Defensive Player of the Year—honors could await on the horizon.
Though obviously thoroughly unofficial, Pro Football Focus recently published its own All-Pro List, and included two Steelers defenders as first-team members. You can probably guess who they are. But let’s start with the grisly old veteran, defensive end Cameron Heyward.
In spite of the fact that Cameron Jordan may have been more productive in producing sacks, the site selected Heyward to pair with Aaron Donald as the two interior defensive players on their list. Of the ninth-year veteran, the article reads:
With Aaron Donald around, one spot on the All-Pro team effectively becomes the best interior defender in the NFL outside of Aaron Donald. This year, that was Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward. One of several players who have been very good for a very long time but put forward a true career year in 2019, Heyward posted the most defensive stops in his career (44), as well as registering 59 total pressures and missing just four tackles on the season. He was a force inside for the Steelers, who were able to complement him with a real pass-rush on the edge this year.
And of course, the other Steelers defender on the list would be one of those men on the edge, one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt. He posted career-highs with 14.5 sacks this season and eight forced fumbles, in addition to two interceptions, and for fumble recoveries.
With big brother J.J. sidelined through injury, T.J. Watt picked up the slack and became a true game-changing force for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season. Watt ended the year with 81 total pressures but also tied for the league lead in forced fumbles with eight. Watt had already taken steps towards being a top-level pass-rusher, but his ability to make impact plays and create turnovers took him to another level in 2019 and earned him a spot on PFF’s All-Pro team, with a very real case for Defensive Player of the Year.