The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been relatively solid all year long, as they’ve defended the run well and for the most part, haven’t gotten completely torched through the air. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has emphasized preventing big plays, and in Pittsburgh’s recent wins, they’ve done a better job of that. The New Orleans Saints had zero explosive plays against the Steelers, the Indianapolis Colts had two, and the Atlanta Falcons had three. At cornerback, Pittsburgh has gotten solid production from both Levi Wallace and Cam Sutton, as both have double-digit pass breakups this season. Austin talked about their production level so far this season.
“You’ve got guys that are smart, they understand ball and they get around and get themselves in the right position to get their hands on footballs. That’s the key. You have to be able to get yourself there to make a play. Those guys can do it, and we’ve been doing it with some pretty good frequency. Now we’re keeping the deep balls off of us, which we’ve got to continue to do, and if we continue to do that, we’ll continue to get better,” Austin said via official transcript provided by the team.
The Steelers have allowed 55 total explosive plays this season (46 of which have come through the air), but in the last four games they’ve won, the Steelers have allowed three or fewer explosive plays in each game and just eight total. In their last four losses, they’ve allowed a whopping 30 total explosive plays. Obviously, a lot has gone into that. Pittsburgh has controlled the ball better in their wins, which has led to a more energized defense, and the quality of offense Pittsburgh has played isn’t as high in the games they’ve won. But Austin has hammered home the point all season about not allowing big plays and that being a major key for this defense. Lately, it’s something they’ve been able to do well.
Something they haven’t been able to do well, especially compared to past years, is sack the quarterback. Even with T.J. Watt back from injury, Pittsburgh’s sack numbers simply aren’t what you would expect from a team that’s had 50+ sacks every year since 2017. Austin, while acknowledging the Steelers would like more sacks, said the lower-than-usual sack total isn’t a problem, as long as Pittsburgh continues to prevent the big play.
“We would like more sacks, obviously, because those things change the game. But I think more importantly we keep the big plays off of us. I think that the most important thing for a defense is you keep the big plays off you.”
The data backs up Austin’s assessment. When the Steelers keep the big plays off them, they tend to win games. It’s something they need to do more consistently and do a better job of, but the last two weeks have been impressive by the Steelers in that regard. In the team’s 37-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 11, they allowed seven explosive plays. Since then, it’s just been five in total. That’s the key for this team to continue winning.
If they prevent teams from being able to go down the field quickly and hit the big play on them, the defense is talented enough to either hold the opposition to a field goal, force a turnover, or make them punt. It’s when teams are able to get big hitters on them and quickly move down the field when they struggle. Having guys like Sutton and Wallace (who also has three interceptions this year, while Sutton has two) who are able to make plays on the ball certainly helps in that regard, especially when the team isn’t getting to the quarterback at its usual rate.
With a second-straight matchup against a run-heavy team this week in the division rival Baltimore Ravens, it’ll be important that the Steelers don’t let Baltimore run to set up the pass, and even more important they don’t let them have success on the ground. Atlanta was able to break off an explosive run play last week on a 20-yard run by running back Tyler Allgeier, and Pittsburgh is going to have to limit Baltimore to a similar total if they want to win.