The expectations for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers is that the offense is going to have to carry the day until the defense can come together and gel as a unit. On Sunday, for the Steelers’ home opener, we all got a preview of what things will look like when that finally happens. The Steelers’ offense pretty much performed as has come to be expected as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards and 3 touchdowns, going 21 for 27. Antonio Brown caught 9 balls for 195 yards and a touchdown as he extended his streak of games with 5 receptions for 50+ yards to 34 games. He also set an NFL record for games with at least 7+ receptions as he ran that streak to 13 consecutive games. Not to be outdone, DeAngelo Williams added 20 carries for 77 yards, and scored three touchdowns, tying a franchise record. Darius Heyward-Bey and Heath Miller also got into the act by catching touchdown passes from Ben Roethlisberger. As good as the offense was against a depleted 49’ers squad, that still has eight Pro Bowl players, the story of the day belongs to a defense that gave Steeler Nation a preview of what is to come.
The Steelers’ defense spent a total of 36 minutes and 59 seconds on the field for a total of 82 plays. They gave up 18 points and 409 yards, with 75 of those yards coming on the touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick to Torrey Smith. Although you can’t take that play off the books, the defense gave up only 334 yards and 11 points, minus that one big play. From the start of the game, it was apparent that the Steelers’ defense solved the on-field communications issues that plagued them in their opener against New England. While some may downplay the performance of the defense, because it was against the 49’ers, San Francisco still has viable weapons on offense. For the most part, the Steelers shut those weapons down. They were all flying to the ball and they set a physical tone early on. One play that stands out was when Antwon Blake belted Vernon Davis along the near sideline, preventing what appeared to be a certain catch to move the chains. As soon as Davis came down with possession of the ball and both feet in bounds, Blake’s violent collision with him knocked the ball out of his hands before Davis could complete the process of the catch. In total, Blake had 10 tackles and several more jarring hits that prevented potential big plays.
The Steelers had five sacks on the day, the first of which belonged to Stephon Tuitt. Along with Tuitt, who got credit for one and a half sacks, Ryan Shazier, Cam Heyward, and Bud Dupree each had a sack, while Arthur Moats got credit for half a sack. Maybe the most notable aspect of the pressure that the defense put on Kaepernick all day, was that a majority of it came without blitzing. Heyward, Tuitt and McLendon seemed to push the San Francisco offensive line back a yard on almost every play, and Ryan Shazier seemed to be living in the 49’ers offensive backfield all game. This was the game we all knew Shazier could have and he finally did. Ryan Shazier showed why he is going to be very special. He was all over the field, flashing his speed and his athletic ability, chasing down Carlos Hyde and helping to keep Kaepernick in check. When he wasn’t blowing up plays in the backfield, Shazier looked very good dropping into coverage against Garret Celek and Vernon Davis. Today, number 50 was in absolute beast mode as he announced his presence to San Francisco and the rest of the NFL.
Bud Dupree recorded a sack in his second straight NFL game and made a key stop of Colin Kaepernick on fourth and goal, to keep the Niners out of the end zone. Since his training camp fight, with what seemed like the entire Steelers’ offense, Dupree has been bringing it to the opposition. He used his freakish size and speed to fight through a block to get a key sack on Kaepernick during a sequence of plays, where the defense forced San Francisco into three consecutive plays that resulted in negative yardage. Prior to that, the Niners had first and goal from the nine yard line. So far, Bud Dupree is making the most of his limited opportunities to get on the field and isn’t looking overwhelmed in the process. Although Jarvis Jones didn’t stand out, he had another solid game. On a few occasions, he looked good when setting the edge, helping to redirect Hyde to the inside where Lawrence Timmons and Shazier cleaned things up nicely. He barely missed out on having a couple of sacks when Kaepernick was able to break containment.
Other than the 75 yard catch and run for a Torrey Smith touchdown, the secondary acquitted itself very well today. They were physical and didn’t give up a whole lot and came through when it mattered. For most people, this was a very satisfying win in which the Steelers gave a more complete team effort. All three phases of the game contributed. It wasn’t, however, satisfying for Cam Heyward. Heyward wasn’t happy with the amount of points the defense gave up along with some of the plays. He did concede that it was a better effort, but that there was a lot more room for improvement. The newest voice of the defense has come a long way himself since he was drafted and expects the rest of the defense to put forth the same effort towards improving. It is much easier for a defense to play with the lead that Big Ben and company gave them, as the confidence provided by that lead allowed them to play looser. The success they had on Sunday should breed more confidence and that confidence should breed more success as the season wears on. Until this unit gels, consistency will be the big concern. If what they showed against San Francisco is any indication, this defense is capable of being very good and could help this team to a deep post season run.