One of the greatest concerns about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense at the outset of the 2022 season was the idea that they were on the field too much. Part of the equation was the fact that the offense wasn’t staying on the field in the first half of the year. When you don’t get much time on the sidelines, that’s going to affect your ability to get off the field.
But how much did it get better in the second half of the year when the Steelers’ offense became one of the most efficient in the league? Under Kenny Pickett, they had some of the longest drives in the NFL, in terms of both plays per drive and time per drive.
The truth is that the Steelers’ defense finished 10th from the bottom of the NFL in terms of plays allowed per drive in the first half of the year. They ranked eighth from the bottom in yards allowed, and 12th from the bottom in percentage of drives that end in a score.
Now what did the numbers look like in the second half of the season? The Steelers ranked ninth overall in the NFL in plays allowed per drive. They ranked fifth in yards allowed. Curiously, their time of possession allowed per drive actually got just slightly worse, but their scoring percentage improved to the middle of the pack. Notably, however, the Steelers ranked fifth in the NFL in touchdowns allowed per drive at just 16.1 percent, so they were allowing more field goals.
So what can we draw from this? Perhaps most notable is the fact that the Steelers improved their ability to prevent touchdowns. Their touchdown rate in the first half of the season was 24.4 percent, but they dropped that to 16.1 after the bye, 22 touchdowns allowed over eight games on 90 drives in comparison to 14 over nine games across 87 drives.
We can’t ignore the influence of the offense. While the Steelers’ drive length defensively remained stagnant—2:46 in the first half of the season and 2:48 in the second—the offense went from 2:43 per drive to 3:19, which was the longest in the NFL by a full nine seconds per drive in either half of the year.
The offense also increased its plays per drive from 6.0 to 7.1, a remarkable improvement from one half of the season to the next — a full extra play per drive for the defense to take a seat on the sideline, which can have a cumulative effect over the course of a game.
Of course, the biggest difference from the first half of the season for the defense to the second was T.J. Watt, who missed seven games after suffering a pectoral injury in the opener. They do pay him a lot of money for the express purpose of making a difference on the game.
But that doesn’t explain why their second-half numbers were better than the Steelers’ numbers from 2021, when Watt won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, so clearly there is a little bit more to it than that.