The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the 2020 season expecting to have one of the best defenses in the league. In terms of the pass rush game, they certainly do have that this year, as they lead the league with 20 sacks, the majority of which has unsurprisingly come from a very productive front four led by T.J. Watt.
There are certainly things that they could be doing better, however, and that probably starts with tightening things up in coverage. They definitely have to clean things up on third down, where the defense was a disaster on Sunday for all but the beginning and the end of the game.
Is the Steelers’ defense on an ascending trajectory, or is this who they are? Is it too early to determine that? They certainly have plenty of talent going up and down the lineup, including even Mike Hilton and Tyson Alualu, their nickel corner and nose tackle, respectively, but they could stand to be more cohesive and make a few more plays in coverage.
It’s perhaps because of some of these lingering concerns that Pro Football Focus did not rank the defense in the top five so far this year, though they did crack to top 10, with Anthony Treasch listing them at ninth, just ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals. He writes:
Along with the Ravens, the Blitzburgh Steelers have also been sending an extra rusher at an extraordinarily rate, and that’s one of the main reasons why they have produced the highest team pass-rush grade in the league so far. They have blitzed on over half their pass plays faced, and they have recorded a pressure on over half of those blitzes (51.8% of the time to be exact, the best in the NFL).
Edge defender T.J. Watt leads the pack and is looking like the best player at his position at this point, as he ranks first in PFF grade at 92.4. The Pittsburgh defensive front has also been exceptional against the run, allowing only 24% of run plays to generate positive EPA, the best mark in the league by 4.5 percentage points.
They can’t let no-name players like Travis Fulgham suddenly come out of nowhere and dominate. They can’t let backup quarterbacks like Jeff Driskel pour on the yardage and keep a game a lot closer than it has any business being. They can’t have 21-point first halves like they did against the Texans.
Again, questions persist. Are these the early-season birth pangs and jitters, or is this the 2020 defense? Now that Ben Roethlisberger is back, they can play more bend-but-don’t-break defense, and don’t have to consistently hold opponents to 17 points or less. But it would certainly lead for less drama on game day.