While they were primed to do so at the tail end of a years-long reloading and revamping process, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense finally came into its own last season at a time when the offense was hitting the bottom of the barrel without the benefit of future Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
The defense transformed into a top-five unit with stars or budding stars in players such as Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, and Devin Bush. They return roughly the same personnel from last year, with the most significant difference being Javon Hargrave’s departure, offset by the return of a healthy Stephon Tuitt.
The Steelers don’t want one side of the ball to have to do all the heavy lifting this year. The defense was on that job last season, but for most of the past decade, it’s been the offense that has been relied upon to bail out the defense. With Roethlisberger coming back, is that the answer to the team’s problems?
“We’ll see. I hope it’s that simple”, Heyward told Andrew Siciliano for the NFL Network yesterday. “It’s a new year, a new team. Some guys get better, some guys get worse, that’s just the name of the guy. Guys have got to be able to perform at a high level. We’re all counting on Ben getting back, JuJu being healthy, James Conner being healthy as well”.
Smith-Schuster and Conner are both former Pro Bowlers who had injury-plagued seasons in 2019, among other struggles that really sunk their reputation around the league. There are questions surrounding both heading into 2020—a contract year for the pair—in terms of just how much they’re worth, and what they can be expected to produce.
But that’s not the Steelers’ concern right now. They just need to get everyone on the field and play. And for Heyward’s group, it’s about helping out. “As a defense, we’ve got to hold up our end of the deal”, he said. “We’ve got to make sure we give them the ball as many times as possible and put them in great situations”.
The Steelers did manage to produce 36 takeaways on defense last season (with another two on special teams). They also scored four non-offensive touchdowns, with three being defensive returns (two on fumble recoveries, one on an interception).
But now it’s about doing it again. They can’t count on an encore performance without going there and making it happen. Have they shown that they can do it? Well, they did it. But as Heyward said, this is a new year, a new team, even with largely the same players. Watt had 14.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles last year. Right now, he has none.