It used to be commonplace to talk about the defense as the top billing when it came to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After all, that is what their dynasty of the 1970s was built around, though the offense had to carry its share of the weight through the second half of that period.
The defenses of the 2000s were also the driving force behind their two more championships, giving them a league-best six, though, yes, even then it took a comeback drive for the ages after the defense let the lead slip away.
For most of the past decade, though, the offense has carried the team, with players like Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. For most of last season, they didn’t have any of those players, and it became obvious. But it also set the stage for the long-anticipated rise of the defense.
Put simply, they were good, but they had to be, and there’s also more expected of them going forward. Team president Art Rooney II laid it out when he spoke to fans yesterday on Steelers Nation Unite, summing up the 2019 season and looking ahead to 2020:
The defense we had this past season was pretty good, and hopefully we’ll get better. We had some new players join the defense last year, and some young players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush who I think are gonna continue to get better as they are with us next year for a second season. Of course we have some veterans on the defense, too, Cam Heyward and Joe Haden, guys like that. I think it’s a pretty good combination of some young guy and some veteran guys that can work together and really become a dominant defense. The truth of the matter is, with all the injuries that we had on offense this past season, and particularly at quarterback, really, I think, it was our defense that helped us hang in there, and too bad we couldn’t have gotten one more win and gotten into the playoffs, but I think those guys fought hard and kept us alive down to the last game of the season. We’re looking forward to continuing to have a strong defense next year, and hopefully the offense will improve as well.
With the acquisitions of Devin Bush, Steven Nelson, Mark Barron, and later Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers went out and spent to bolster the defense, but they also saw career-best performances from T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Joe Haden (in Pittsburgh), and, arguably, Cameron Heyward as well.
This led to the Steelers ranking in the top five in points allowed for the season, as well as yards allowed. They were very nearly one of only five teams to allow fewer than 300 points, and were one of five to allow fewer than 5000 yards.
They also led the NFL in both sacks and takeaways, the only team since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 to do so. They were only one of four defenses to allow opponents to score on fewer than 30 percent of their drives, and 19 percent of their defensive drives ended in a takeaway, the highest in the league.