For a franchise known for defense, there have been some disappointing times over the last few years. We can point to several factors that contributed to a ten year downturn for the Steelers defense. First off, the team was slow to react to the changing offenses in the NFL. The Dick LeBeau zone blitz style quickly became a liability to the new quick passing games. Mike Tomlin and company stubbornly stuck with this scheme, and the results were predictably terrible.
The other major factor in the decline was personnel. Kevin Colbert had his share of whiffs in drafting defense players during this time. The names Jarvis Jones, and Artie Burns are some of the worst first round gaffs in his entire career with the Steelers.
This all began to change last season. The fruits of improved drafting began to take hold. Players like TJ Watt and Bud Dupree had breakout seasons. Colbert then pulled off his greatest trade by acquiring Minkah Fitzpatrick two games into 2019. Suddenly, this team had major talent all over the defense.
Better players were added to a more modern defensive system as well. It took far too long, but the team finally embraced a more modern sub-package driven defense. The results were astounding. The Steelers defense actually carried this team to a near playoff birth. That despite one of the worst offenses in NFL due to the injury to Ben Roethlisberger.
Entering the 2020 season we have to wonder is this the best defense of the entire Mike Tomlin era? He started his coaching career with some extremely talented units. The Super Bowl winning 2007 team had a tremendous defense. The 2010 version was arguably Tomlin’s best however. This defense led the NFL in lowest points allowed, and was second overall in yards allowed. So is the 2020 version possibly better than that group? Let’s compare the personnel from that squad to today’s to try to hash out which is better.
2010 – Ike Taylor, DeShea Townsend, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark
2020 – Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds
The edge here goes to the 2010 defense mostly due to the talents of Troy Polamalu. This was Polamalu in his prime where he led the team with seven interceptions. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a very talented player, but he will never have the impact that Polamalu had on the game.
The corners are pretty much a a wash. Both were talented, but unspectacular groups. A healthy Ryan Clark was far better than what Terrell Edmunds brings to the table. This is a clear nod for the 2010 group.
2010 – James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons
2020 – TJ Watt, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, Devin Bush
This is a really tough one. Really, really tough in fact. I’d take Bud Dupree over Woodley at this point, but 2010 was peak James Harrison. Tough to take Watt over him as good as good as he has become. The inside linebackers are close too. Vince Williams has come into his own now, he is an excellent fit for this defense. James Farrior was a fantastic player, but the upside for Devin Bush is far better. I have to give this position group a push here. It’s really just too close to call.
2010 – Evander Hood, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel
2020 – Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu
We have our widest gap of the three position groups here. The current version is far better than the 2010 group in our opinion. Cam Heyward is simply the best defensive lineman this team has produced since the 70s. And a “healthy” Stephon Tuitt is not all that far behind him. Add to that a surprisingly good Tyson Alualu at nose tackle, and this is an outstanding group. With all respect to the Casey Hamptons and Brett Keisels, this one is not close.
The fact that we can even have this debate is the best news we can think of. For years we have been critical of the Steelers defense to the point we have called for some heads over the years. Steelers defense not nearly as good as advertised
Mike Tomlin and company have finally managed to turn it around however. So much so, we have to ask the question is this his best defense ever? And the answer is yes. The deciding factor is determined when you look at how much harder it is to play defense in 2020. https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/richard-sherman-says-the-nfl-is-making-it-impossible-to-play-defense-with-new-rules/
The 2019 defense had everything going against them, and yet they still performed at an elite level. The offense constantly put them in bad positions, and never scored enough points. Add to that the current rules that favor offensive play, and it’s even more astounding how well they played. The scary part is the 2020 version should be even better. Nearly the entire squad returns form last season, giving them another year of experience playing with each other. The sky is the limit for the 2020 Steelers defense. This is not quite 1970s level defense, but it is certainly the best defense Mike Tomlin has ever fielded.