The Pittsburgh Steelers defense was supposed to be the best in the league this year, or at least something very close to it. For stretches of games, certainly, they have been this season. They almost completely shut down the Houston Texans in the second half, for example, forcing three-and-outs on all but one drive, which ended in an interception.
But there have been other stretches, such as the first half against the Texans, which have been less inspiring. They are outside of the top 10, for example, in passing yardage allowed. Even with one fewer game played than most, their six passing touchdowns is only tied for the eighth-fewest. Their run defense, granted, ranks first or tied for first across the board, to date.
Also notable is the fact that they have only allowed a score on 29.4 percent of opponent drives, while producing a takeaway on 14.7 percent of opponent drives, the former ranking third in the league, the latter 10th. Only the Ravens, Titans, Buccaneers, and Colts also rank in the top 10 in both.
Still, in spite of their mixture of impressive numbers, the stretches during games in which they have struggled have had some call into question whether or not this defense can really live up to the highest points of what they showed last season.
This is not lost on the players, and they, too, understand that they have had some stretches of games that they would like to have back. They have allowed a number of explosive-play touchdowns already this season, which was almost non-existent last year.
“I mean, it’s the NFL. you’re going to have ups and downs”, said Steven Nelson, who gave up zero touchdowns last year but already has a couple in 2020. “The good thing about it is it’s early. People talk about what we’ve done when we had bad reps or whatever, but it’s only week three, going into week four, so it’s still early. We’ve got a lot of time the clean it up”.
Will they have been able to make good use of the bye week to clean up some of those loose ends on defense, such as improving communication? In each of the past two games, head coach Mike Tomlin has mentioned that the team made adjustments after the opposing offense had a stretch of making plays, in which the defense did clamp down.
It will also be helpful that every week provides more and more tape about what their opponents’ tendencies are, which makes it easier to know what to expect. Their next opponent is the Philadelphia Eagles, who have had one of the worst passing offenses in the league so far this season, including the second-worst net yards per pass attempt figure in the NFL.