Whether or not the offense can do a damn thing is going to be the story for the Pittsburgh Steelers throughout the offseason. Considering how spotty they’ve been for most of the past decade, there is an unusual amount of confidence entering 2020 that the defensive side of the football is at least going to manage to hold its own.
It’s hard to argue otherwise if you go by what they were able to accomplish, both as a unit and as individual players, in 2019. They ranked in the top five or 10 in almost all significant defensive categories, including the top five in points allowed. They became the first team since sacks became an official statistic to lead the league in both sacks and takeaways. That’s pretty good.
They also had four defenders go to the Pro Bowl, including two in the secondary, both of who intercepted five passes apiece. They had four defenders on the team who recorded six or more takeaways on their own, which is astonishing.
One of those players checked in between 101 and 76 on Pro Football Focus’ list of the top 101 players of the 2019 season, the first of presumably four installments. That would be safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, but he was one of just two defenders to make it here, with Steven Nelson also recognized at cornerback.
Both defensive backs were acquired in 2019, Nelson a priority free agent and Fitzpatrick having been traded for in-season. They had a huge transformational effect on the secondary, with the former making first-team All-Pro. He checked in at number 94:
If we were looking only at the Minkah Fitzpatrick who played in Pittsburgh, he would likely be higher on this list, but PFF grades every play of the season, and Miami Minkah was a thing that happened, albeit just for a couple of weeks. In Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick showed that he could be a far bigger playmaker than the Dolphins ever coaxed from him, and he made several game-changing plays for them in his new home. Inconsistency remained his biggest issue, but there is no doubting the big-time playmaking ability he has.
Nelson had a much more quiet season, but that’s what you want from a cornerback if he’s not getting interceptions. The site has been consistently high on him throughout the year, and if I recall correctly, they were encouraged by his signing back in March. He checked in at 86 on the list.
One of the more underrated players in all of football, Steven Nelson had an excellent season for the Pittsburgh Steelers after being “just another member” of a Chiefs defense that was disappointing in 2018. Nelson allowed just 51.5% of passes thrown his way this season to be caught and allowed only one touchdown across the 66 passes thrown into his coverage. Nelson’s run defense was also solid, and he demonstrated that, while on a better unit, he was capable of much better play than he was being given credit for while playing in Kansas City.
You know at least two more Steelers will make the list in T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, probably in the top 25. Will Bud Dupree, or anybody else? I doubt it.