The Pittsburgh Steelers had a clear goal for themselves defensively entering the 2019 season: create more splash plays, more takeaways. They did that and then some, leading the league in takeaways, with 36 if I recall correctly. They became the first team since 1982 to lead the league in both takeaways and sacks, which is the year sacks officially were recognized as a statistic.
Despite the fact that they were able to take the ball away frequently—they had multiple takeaways in 13 of 16 games—it didn’t always translate into wins, thanks to the anemic offense without Ben Roethlisberger under center.
The defense understood the huge burden it was being tasked with taking on, supporting the team when it had usually held the opposite role in favor of a strong offense. They were only able to get the Steelers to an 8-8 record. They want to do even more in 2020, and T.J. Watt knows what the next step is.
“I think to fully take over a game. To just completely shut teams out”, Watt said from the Pro Bowl earlier this week about what they have to do next. “We didn’t get any zeros on the board. We want to be able to shut teams out and control the game defensively. I think that’s what really sets defenses apart. Especially once you get the takeaways, you want to be able to lay the goose egg on teams and make sure they’re not scoring any points and help the offense out as much as you possibly can”.
It has been a while, actually, since the Steelers last recorded a shutout. You would have to go all the way back to the 2011 season, which was at the tail end and waning years of their dominant defensive run that saw the unit carry the team to three Super Bowl appearances, and two Lombardi trophies. They recorded two shutouts that season, in Week Two against the Seattle Seahawks and Week 16 against the St. Louis Rams. I remember both of those games well, actually. They recorded one shutout in their 2008 season, in the finale against the Cleveland Browns.
Of course the gold standard is the 1976 season. That season, a 14-game season, admittedly, they only surrendered 138 total points, allowing an average of 9.9 points per game. That was on the strength of five shutouts, including three in a row. And that was after giving up 30 points or more in two of the first three games of the season. 75 of the 138 points they allowed came in the first three weeks. From then on, they only allowed 5.7 points per game.
Times are different now, of course. In 2019, the Steelers allowed 303 points, 18.9 per game, and that ranked as the fifth-best mark in the league. The problem is that the offense only put up 289 points, 18.1 per game, which ranked 27th. So you can see what the defense is thinking it needs to pitch a couple of shutouts.