Media analysts have become big believers in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense in recent months. After all, they pretty much carried a team to a .500 record without competent quarterback play, and even amid other very prominent injuries to their most significant skill position players. Even with one of the top scoring defenses, they still allowed more points than they put up as a team—and that includes three defensive touchdowns and a special teams touchdown as well. The offense was just ridiculously bad.
And one of the reasons they believe the Steelers can carry this over into 2020 is because there really hasn’t been much change. Now, they have lost some players. Javon Hargrave is obviously a significant departure after he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Mark Barron played a lot of snaps last year as well. Anthony Chickillo is a blow to the outside linebacker depth, and they could use Sean Davis as a third safety.
But according to ESPN, they return the fourth-highest percentage of defensive snaps form last season in the NFL at about 84 percent. The only teams who have lost a lower percentage of defensive snaps were the 49ers, the Buccaneers, and the Chiefs.
And the Steelers’ figure would be even lower if it were not for Stephon Tuitt going down. He would have eaten up a lot of the snaps that Hargrave ended up playing, for example. Barron’s loss is understandable, but the guy who played nearly 1500 snaps at his position between 2017 and 2018 is still on the roster and will be in that role again: Vince Williams.
There likely won’t be a single new face playing a prominent role on defense this year. Rookie Alex Highsmith is the only player who wasn’t on the team last year who might see some snaps as a reserve outside linebacker, getting some late-game pass-rush work, for example.
Ulysees Gilbert III could find a defensive role in his second season after playing zero defensive snaps as a rookie. Perhaps Justin Layne, another second-year player, may find some work as well. But if they do end up playing, it’s because they earned it, most likely, and the coaches determined that playing them would be to the teams benefit.
There is a very real possibility that this defense could actually be better than last year. Tuitt’s return is really big news. Devin Bush having a full season under his belt is a serious development, as is a full offseason with the Steelers for Minkah Fitzpatrick, and time for the safety tandem to grow together.
Still, the numbers they put up would be hard to duplicate. Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, they are the only team to ever lead the league in both sacks and takeaways in the same season. Not exactly something you should expect to do twice, given the odds.