Under any circumstances, a great season by an NFL team requires that a lot of things go right, and a big part of that is always having key players stay healthy. Rare is it that any team can lose more than a couple of significant players due to injury in the middle of the season and still come out on top, especially if one of those players is your quarterback.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a Super Bowl-caliber level of talent and pedigree on their roster in 2020, but if they are going to win the Super Bowl, they still have to have a lot of things go right. That starts with Ben Roethlisberger being healthy and playing at a reasonably high level, but certainly doesn’t end there.
This team is now led by its defense, with players like T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush, and Cameron Heyward leading the way. Throw in Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, and Vince Williams, and that is a damn good starting 11.
According to ESPN, in fact, the Steelers’ defense ranked first in the league last season in weighted DVOA, or Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average. When weighing DVOA, it takes into account the progression of the season, so ranks later games higher, as being more representative of the current state of the unit.
In 2019, the Steelers ranked first in sacks, first in takeaways, fifth in points allowed, and fifth in yards allowed. The numbers improved as the season progressed, by and large, particularly after they acquired Fitzpatrick, so in Pittsburgh’s case in particular, using weighted DVOA really does make sense to get a more accurate look at where they are.
This has been a long-haul turnaround from the low point of 2014, during which, according to the Insider article linked above, the defense bottomed out with a DVOA ranking of 30th, a downward trend that commenced after the 2010 season, when they had the top defense.
And so they started at the top, and ended at the top, but there was a massive valley in the middle, with the bottom really being very near the lowest level in the NFL. Since 2015, however, there has been a steady but gradual rise under Keith Butler, who took over as defensive coordinator that year.
It’s hard not to feel that the unit will regress some in 2020. After all, never before since sacks were officially counted had a team led in both that category as well as in takeaways in the same season. But if they can trade off some splash for more consistency, that could be the thing that makes this defense championship-worthy.