Last season, it was painfully obvious that the Steelers’ defense had become a liability. They needed an infusion of youth, especially in the secondary. Troy Polamalu was two steps slower. The only move that Ike Taylor had left was to grab hold of the receiver’s jersey as he was running by him. Both players had been stalwarts in Dick LeBeau’s defense for the last decade, and they both made their share of big plays. Like all players though, Father Time had finally caught up with them. Injuries to both players sent them to the bench and in their place went youth and inexperience in the form of Shamarko Thomas, Bryce McCain and Antwon Blake. As these young players gained experience and playing time, the unexpected happened — the back half of the defense actually improved. While they made their share of mistakes, they also came up with critical turnovers that led to or preserved four victories down the stretch. The biggest of those turnovers was Blake’s forced fumble on Bengals wide receiver, AJ Green, that helped wrap up the AFC North title for the Steelers.
Going into last offseason, the Steelers targeted the secondary as one area of need heading into the draft, along with linebacker. With the retirements of Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and Jason Worilds, the Steelers hit the 2015 NFL Draft looking for their replacements. Their first two picks netted them Kentucky linebacker Bud Dupree and Ole Miss CB, Senquez Golson, an athletic cornerback who played much bigger than his size and possessed much needed ball skills. While Dupree has contributed 4 sacks and is improving weekly, Golson ended up on injured reserve with season-ending shoulder surgery before the season even started. In response to losing Golson, the Steelers traded a conditional draft pick to the Eagles for slot cornerback Brandon Boykin, who has yet to see any meaningful playing time. Coming into this season, it was expected that the Steelers’ explosive offense was going to have to carry the young defense until they started to gel. Led by new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, the defense has had to carry the offense to this point. They have done it with players who weren’t expected to start, let alone even be on the roster, like late camp addition, Ross Cockrell, whose presence has kept Boykin on the bench.
The biggest knock on this year’s defense has been that they have been giving up big chunks of yardage. So far this season, the defense has given up 2,932 yards, 776 on the ground, and 2,156 through the air, an average of 366.5 yards per game. Last season the defense gave up an average of 353.3 yards per game. Despite the defense giving up 13.2 more yards per game this season, they are actually allowing almost 5 points per game less this season (18.4 ppg) than they did in 2014 (23 ppg). That’s pretty impressive when one considers the fact that the defense has spent an average of almost 5 more minutes on the field per game in 2015 (32:11), than in 2014 (27:36). The quickest way for improvement in this area, is to reduce the amount of “unnecessary yardage” that they give up, by eliminating the sloppy tackling they display far too often. Against Kansas City and Cincinnati, they gave up a total of 212 extra yards because of this very reason. The return of Roethlisberger to the offense should also help to reduce the amount of time the defense is on the field and the yards given up. Overall though, the defense is on pace to give up 74 points less than they did in 2014.
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Former Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is considered the father of the zone blitz. With LeBeau, the Steelers’ defense became known for having the most creative and confusing ways of sacking the quarterback, which they did 541 times during his tenure. The Steelers’ defense averaged 41.6 sacks a year during LeBeau’s 13 years, with a franchise high of 51 sacks in both 1995 and 2008. In 2014, the sack total fell to 33, the lowest number recorded during LeBeau’s thirteen years of running the defense. Enter Keith Butler, whose first decision upon taking over as defensive coordinator was to simplify the defense so that his young talent could get on the field sooner and play, without having to think so much. After the first eight games this season, the Steelers have recorded 22 sacks, which puts them on pace for 44 this season. This added pressure on the quarterback has also helped the defense record 7 interceptions at the halfway point, after totaling 11 for all of 2014. The Steelers’ defense has always been about pressuring the quarterback, but this year more of that pressure is designed to come from the defensive linemen. This plays to the strengths of defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, who are thriving under this change nicely.
In addition to the increased number of sacks the Steelers have recorded, there has also been notable improvement with the run defense. Last season the defense gave up 4.4 yards per carry on 368 attempts, for 1,605 yards and 9 touchdowns. To this point of the 2015 season, they are on pace to give up 4 touchdowns and 1,552 yards on more carries (406) at an improved 3.8 yards per carry average. While that may not seem like much of an improvement, consider this. In the running game alone, they are projected to give up 35 fewer points. At the 18.3 points per game they are giving up, that’s almost two games worth of points. In the passing game, the Steelers gave up 30 touchdown passes last year. This year, they are on pace to give up 24 touchdown passes. That’s another 42 points they are not giving up this season, as opposed to last year. The defense hasn’t had much of an opportunity to play with a comfortable lead this year. When they did, they tortured San Francisco. These defensive stats can realistically trend down if Roethlisberger and the offense can find their rhythm, and start putting up numbers similar to the ones from last season. Up until now, the defense has had to play with little margin for error in most of their games. If given a decent lead to play with, just like in the the San Francisco game, the Steelers have enough talent on defense to where they can take over and put teams away. That’s the kind of defense that can help take a team a long way in January.