The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of the top offenses in the league in 2018, sending three skill position players to the Pro Bowl, finishing high in the rankings in points per game, but they had a defense that kept letting them down, especially in the fourth quarter, blowing leads in four of their seven non-victories, and failing to preserve a tie score on a fifth.
The 2019 season was quite the opposite. The defense was one of the very best in the league, and certainly one of the most impactful, but even though their 38 takeaways helped to secure the offense with one of the best average starting field positions in the NFL, without Ben Roethlisberger, they were among the very worst units in the game.
Tonight’s contest against the New York Giants provided us with our first taste of what a more balanced offense-defense ratio might look like, and as an appetizer, it tasted pretty damn good in a 26-16 win that featured two defensive takeaways and zero offensive giveaways (but one on special teams. It looked like the defense picked up where it left off. But Mike Tomlin wasn’t interested in that line of thought.
“Nothing is a continuation of last year”, he said after the game. “We respect this process. We respect the group that we have together this year. There’s some components of it that are different. Even those that remain are different, and hopefully for the better. And that’s players and coaches. We don’t find comfort in comparisons to ’19 and things of that nature. We’re trying to build a reputation and a resume here in 2020”.
Still, it’s hard not to reminisce. The Steelers of 2019 secured a league-leading 38 takeaways, though two came on defense, including, of all things, an interception by Trey Edmunds. Their 54 sacks were also the most in the NFL, the third time in as many years as they have finished first outright or tied for first. They finished first in turnover percentage and third in points per drive, fifth in points allowed overall, and fifth in yards allowed.
On the night, Daniel Jones did end up with 262 passing yards, but so much of that came seemingly while the game was already out of reach, or nearly out of reach. They still only averaged 4.5 yards per play, and were 1 for 3 in the red zone, though they also converted eight of 15 on third down.
This defense in 2020 is not yet a finished product. Nobody is going to be out of the gate. But it was a good start, and a stepping stone to better things as the season progresses. It’s not going to be the 2019 defense. But it has the potential to be even better.