The Pittsburgh Steelers defense in 2019 allowed 314 completed passes on 514 attempts against them for 3113 yards, with 23 touchdowns allowed to 20 interceptions, allowing a net yards allowed per attempt figure of 5.5. outside of the number of touchdowns allowed, those numbers across the board ranked comfortably within the top five in the league.
So it seems appropriate that Pro Football Focus ranked the Steelers fifth in the NFL for the 2019 season in terms of their secondary. They made two major additions to the back end last season, starting with the free agent signing of Steven Nelson back in March. In September, they traded a first-round pick for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who would become a first-team All-Pro.
Solomon Wilcots broke down PFF’s secondary rankings in a recent article. The New England Patriots, to nobody’s surprise, finished on top, followed by the San Francisco 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings, and then the Buffalo Bills. The Vikings may seem to stick out, but their strength was in their safeties, not their cornerbacks. Wilcots writes of the Steelers:
The addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick helped to solidify a revamped Pittsburgh defense that ended up earning PFF’s fifth-best coverage grade (90.0) in 2019. Their cornerback trio of Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton and Joe Haden all rank among the top 25 highest-graded players at their position, and the defense as a whole went on to collect the second-most interceptions (20) and allow the second-lowest passer rating (85.4) among all 32 teams. After a shaky two-game start to the season, Fitzpatrick joined the team and helped the Steelers secondary to rapidly improve in critical areas. After allowing 0.482 EPA per pass play over the first two weeks, 30th among teams, the Steelers allowed -0.268 EPA per pass play from Week 3 to Week 17, which was unmatched around the league.
That last tidbit is an astounding data point, especially in comparison to the first two games, though of course that is a small sample size. Still, it was abundantly obvious how much of a difference Fitzpatrick’s presence made, in spite of the fact that he was new to the team.
Lest we forget, the Steelers had to start first-year Kameron Kelly against the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots in the season opener. That didn’t go over too well. Against the Seattle Seahawks in Week Two, Sean Davis returned, still playing through injury, only to suffer a season-ending one in that game after exacerbating a shoulder issue.
The good news? Everybody remains under contract for 2020, with the exception of Mike Hilton, a restricted free agent, who may get a modest long-term extension. In fact. Of the other four starting secondary, they are under contract through at least 2021, with the starting safeties still very young and on rookie contracts.