The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the 2020 season having not been to the playoffs since 2017, and having not won a playoff game since 2016. They went 8-8 last season. And yet there is a good deal of optimism behind the former perennial contenders in their bid to return to that status—not without reason.
While so much of what they are potentially able to do will rest upon the elbow of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and what he can get out of the surgically-repaired arm, it is the defense that is now in the driver’s seat for Pittsburgh, and is good enough to compete with in 2020.
That is the argument Solomon Wilcots makes for Pro Football Focus, putting together an article demonstrating how the Steelers transformed their defense into not only an elite pass-rushing unit, but also one of the top coverage teams as well. The Steelers have been generating pressure for a while now, but the improvement in coverage last season was enormous.
That’s thanks in no small part to the major investments the team made in the back end last season, signing cornerback Steven Nelson in free agency and then acquiring safety Minkah Fitzpatrick via trade. The latter was a first-team All-Pro, while a prior investment, Joe Haden, made his first Pro Bowl in Pittsburgh.
According to the site’s numbers, Wilcots writes that the Steelers’ secondary posted the third-best completion percentage against a year ago, with the fourth-highest forced-incompletion percentage at 14.4 percent. They allowed 7.2 yards per target, sixth-best, and 54 explosive plays, also sixth.
Remember, these numbers are specific to the secondary, not the defense as a whole. And the numbers after Fitzpatrick was acquired in Week Three on are even better.
Meanwhile, the pass rush led by T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Cameron Heyward produced the most sacks, the highest pressure rate, and the best win rate. As a defense, the Steelers are credited with ‘winning’ on 64.5 percent of their snaps, generating some sort of pressure on 40.4 percent of their snaps—both numbers, again, tops in the NFL.
Wilcots believes that even if the Steelers fail to duplicate their turnover production from last season—a feat that is rather unlikely—the unit has enough star power and performance to retain its place among the top units in the league.
“With a healthy Ben Roethlisberger in 2020, the Steelers will no longer be the offensive juggernaut with a defense as its Achilles heel”, he concludes. “And even if the Steelers fail to replicate the high turnover rate from one year ago, its star power on defense is undeniable. So, with the lethal combination of top-ranked pressure and coverage, the Steelers’ defense makes the team a contender in the AFC for 2020”.