The Pittsburgh Steelers defense stepped up in a major way last season, but it was only sufficient enough to get them out to an 8-8 record by season’s end—but the time that they were on their fourth-string quarterback at least.
It’s fair to say that the team’s 8 wins were due primarily to the defense, with an offense that pretty consistently ranked among the least efficient units in the entire league in nearly every measure. With Ben Roethlisberger returning this year, however, the question faced was whether or not they could live up to the same standard.
Two games into the 2020 season, the early signs are positive, to say the least. In the season opener, they were able to get to Daniel Jones three times, with Vince Williams, Mike Hilton, and Stephon Tuitt notching sacks. They also got interceptions from T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, the latter in the end zone.
They did even better today against the Denver Broncos in their home debut—in fact, they outperformed themselves by halftime, taking a 17-3 lead into the second quarter. And that was thanks largely to the defense, which by then had two takeaways and four sacks.
Both takeaways were big. The first came from a Bud Dupree strip sack that also knocked Drew Lock out of the game, and which led to a touchdown going the other way on offense—something the Steelers weren’t able to do last year. Shortly before halftime, Joe Haden came up with an interception off a high pass tipped, returning it inside the 20, which they converted into a field goal.
By then, Dupree, Hilton, Tyson Alualu, Watt, and Cameron Heyward all got involved in the sack party, with five in total, one split by Watt and Heyward, the former also with a full. And that doesn’t include the several hits on the quarterback that also affected throws, or Alualu’s batted pass.
They didn’t stop at the half, of course. Watt got his next sack in the middle of the third quarter on first and goal, this after having zero sacks in the opener—even though he got into the backfield frequently. And that sack kept the Broncos in the end zone, forcing them to settle for a field goal on fourth and 10.
But the defense would slow to a crawl after that, allowing the Broncos a couple of touchdowns in the second half. First, Devin Bush got beat by Noah Fant for a 20-yard touchdown, then Vince Williams was had on a wheel route by Melvin Gordon, though that was a great throw and catch.
It got worse from there, as the Steelers continued to burden themselves with unnecessary penalties affording the Broncos free third-down conversions. It was Terrell Edmunds on the holding call that gave Denver new lift, but then he was able to end the drive with a sack on fourth and two, their seventh of the game.
It was a nailbiter, but once again, the defense’s splash plays turned the tide in the final, most crucial moment. Seven sacks and two takeaways that produced 10 points off of turnovers. This unit is still a work in progress, allowing a lot more yardage than they should and missing tackles, but the ability to make those individual plays along the way will keep them upright while they get their feet under them.