When compared to the rest of the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is average in terms of tackling efficiency. Their quality of tackling may not be acceptable to their fans, but referencing the missed tackle numbers by team from outlets like Pro Football Focus, for example, you get a clearer picture of what is the norm for a modern defense, and Pittsburgh is really right smack in the middle, even when accounting for their having a bye week.
That is in no way to excuse missed tackles, especially in light of their most recent struggles in their last game against the Seattle Seahawks, now two weeks ago. Still, while they are acknowledging it and working on it, the defense isn’t stressing the issue, nor the recency bias.
“We were in pads yesterday”, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said back on Thursday, via the team’s media department. “Missed tackles happen. You’ve just got to put yourself in better position when you get there. Wrap up, get your eyes up, stuff like that. I don’t think it’s so much of an ‘issue’. It’s just sometimes you miss tough tackles. But you’ve just got to keep working on it, keep putting yourself in position and get to the ball, and you’ll be alright”.
I will now pre-empt you by pointing out what you’re about to mention, unless you’ve already rushed to the comments section to say it after reading the above quote—or after reading the headline. Yes, Fitzpatrick himself leads the team in missed tackles.
Pro Football Focus has him down for eight missed tackles on the season, and that represents a miss rate of 14.8 percent, though that percentage is not the highest on the team. In fact, cornerback Joe Haden is at 23.3 percent.
Fitzpatrick has never been a very efficient tackler. Ironically, his best season in this department by far was in 2019 when the Steelers first acquired him. But he missed 14 tackles as a rookie with the Miami Dolphins in 2018, and 14 again last season with the Steelers.
He’s on pace to set a new career high this year, of course, unless he starts to clean things up. The Steelers have asked him to move around more this year and play closer to the line of scrimmage at times; that could account for some of the increase.
And, of course, this is a defense with a lot of caveats. They’re missing Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, for example. Devin Bush is fresh off of a major knee injury. Joe Schobert—who has had tackling issues in his career—is still pretty new to the defense. You have a lot of turnover in the secondary.
A lot of team tackling efficiency is about more than just individual technique. It’s about understanding your positioning relative to your teammates, not just in terms of gap soundness, but in general, and that takes playing time. One can only hope that continued playing experience yields cleaner play in the most fundamental element of defensive football: Getting the guy with the ball on the ground.