We have reached the halfway point of the season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has looked dominant at times. The stats are beginning to back this up as the defense is currently ranked in the top ten overall in the league. One stat in particular that really stands out is the amount of turnovers this team has produced. The Steelers are second in the league in this category with 22. That’s an astonishing seven more than all of last season in only half the games. Pittsburgh made this a point of emphasis after their abysmal showing in turnover differential last season which saw them at a -11. The acquisition of Minkah Fitzpatrick seems to have been the final piece of the puzzle in solving the lack of turnovers from the previous year. He has led the way in this turnover barrage with four interceptions of his own. That kind of play has become contagious, as the Steelers are now third in the NFL with eleven total interceptions. Along with acquiring Fitzpatrick, the signing of Steven Nelson to pair with Joe Haden gives the Steelers their best secondary in the Mike Tomlin era.
We would be remiss to mention that a major factor in all these turnovers is the pressure this defense puts on opposing quarterbacks. The team stands at fifth in the league with 29 sacks on the season. TJ Watt and Bud Dupree have become perhaps the premiere pass-rushing duo in the entire league. In fact, the entire linebacking group has been playing at a high level. Rookie Devin Bush has exceeded expectations so far, even with his occasional struggles covering tight ends. Vince Williams is a rock solid run defender, who also can provide an inside pass rush. The line has been its usual outstanding self. Even with the loss of Stephon Tuitt, this group continues to thrive led by Pro-Bowler Cam Heyward. This may in fact be the best collection of talent on defense anywhere in the NFL.
Ok we’ve listed all the reasons why this defense is really good, so why the question of whether or not they are for real? Well, lets begin with the competition they have faced so far. It is hard to forget how the New England Patriots carved up this unit to the tune of 33 points and 450 yards. The following week was more of the same. The Seahawks put up 28 points and another 445 yards on this defense. Now, the argument can be made that these games were pre-Minkah Fitzpatrick. But is that really the reason, or has the level of offenses they have faced diminished substantially? Here are the quarterbacks the Steelers have faced since week two:
Week 3 – Jimmy Garappolo (445 yards total offense despite 5 turnovers)
Week 4 – Andy Dalton (0-8 and now benched)
Week 5 – Lamar Jackson (good showing by the defense)
Week 6 – Philip Rivers (320 yards passing)
Week 8 – Ryan Fitzpatrick (enough said)
Week 9 – Brian Hoyer (3 touchdown passes in his first start of the season)
It’s kind of a “the chicken or the egg” scenario for the Steelers defense. Did getting Minkah Fitzpatrick completely change this group, or did the schedule just lighten up. The likelihood is it’s probably a little of both. Even with the impact Fitzpatrick has brought to the team, there is still something not quite right with the defense.
This brings us to the most important concern……..Keith Butler. Despite all the influx in talent, we still see some of the same weaknesses pop up for this team. They still struggle mightily covering tight ends this season. We heard for years this was because the team did not have an athletic inside linebacker or competent free safety. Well now they do, and yet the problem persists. Confusion in the secondary and substituting players in between plays continues to be a problem as well. Despite all the good things going on here, it is still very difficult to get overly excited about a Keith Butler coached defense.
Unfortunately due to the Ben Roehtlisberger injury we probably won’t get to see this defense tested during a playoff run. There are a few interesting tests in the remaining schedule however. This weeks game against the Rams will present a difficult test for the Steelers defense. A good performance in that game would go a long way in legitimizing this group for 2019. If they can overcome the mismatch in game planning between Keith Butler versus Sean McVay, then we can honestly say this defense is a legit top defense in the NFL.