10 Observations: Steelers Defense Might Be NFL's Best

Too soon? The Pittsburgh Steelers' season opener said otherwise.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are 1-0 behind one of the best defensive performances in recent memory.

Only days after signing T.J. Watt to a new contract, moving a left tackle to the right side and starting a rookie on the blindside, and placing three premiere players on Injured Reserve, Pittsburgh walked into Buffalo - and left winners.

The spread was 6.5 points towards the Bills. The Steelers' defense, even when they were trailing, wasn't going to let that happen. You sensed it right from the start.

And a big part was because of one man.

T.J. Watt is Worth Every Penny

The Steelers are so thankful they got a deal done with T.J. Watt prior to Sunday's game in Buffalo. If they didn't, he would've been worth twice as much.

Watt's first game of the season came with two full days of practice ALL SUMMER. He put pads on Wednesday, signed a contract Friday morning and boarded the team's bus on Sunday.

He recorded two sacks and a forced fumble.

This defense is dangerous. It might be the best in the NFL, and it all starts with Watt's presence.

Cam Sutton Can Hang on the Outside

The Steelers utilized Sutton across the field in this game, but where he shined the brightest was on the outside. James Pierre didn't have a bad game. In fact, he had a pretty good one. But Sutton made a statement with his opportunity.

His seven-yard drop in the backfield on fourth and one in the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on that statement.

"Huge," T.J. Watt described the play. "I think the play before, I came up and under the tackle and I shouldn't have. Minkah [Fitzpatrick] came down like a missile from the middle of field and made it fourth-and-one. Just plays like that were happening all day. I'm so excited to get back and watch the film because there were tremendous plays like that all over. Then Cam Sutton made a tremendous play on that fourth-and-one as well to get the ball back to our offense."

When Ahkello Witherspoon begins playing, the Steelers have more options on the outside than the inside, so Sutton might keep moving around. If the Steelers' plan is to keep changing their backfield to disguise their secondary, go for it. It worked in Week 1.

Three-Man Rotation at Slot

The Steelers used three players in the slot in Week 1 after testing the waters with pretty much everyone in the preseason. It shouldn't have worked, but it did - and it worked well.

Sutton in the slot always works. If the Steelers need to use anyone, anywhere, it's Sutton.

Arthur Maulet's time on the field was short, but he spent most of the second quarter working at the nickel. It's hard to judge whether he's a viable option for a full game, but maybe he doesn't have to be.

And then there was Tre Norwood.

Tre Norwood Should Start in Slot

The seventh-round rookie shouldn't have made an impact in the team's Week 1 game against a team that played in the AFC Championship game last season. But he was.

Norwood recorded the first two tackles of the game and made a statement that the Bills could try to take advantage of him but it won't work.

All summer, the Steelers talked about Norwood being the new Swiss Army Knife. There were times in camp you thought you the same. There were also times you felt he needed more development. In Week 1, he showed he opens a lot of doors for the players around him by being so versatile.

The Steelers' defense was strong as a whole, but they looked their strongest in the first quarter. This unit has way more options than they imagined. Than any of us imagined.

Steelers Defense is Better in 2021

Tired of talking about the defense yet? Well, get used to it because it's going to keep the Steelers' season alive week after week.

From top to bottom, this group is good. There shouldn't be this much depth, especially from guys like a seventh-round pick or a second-year undrafted free agent. Somehow, Pittsburgh found every diamond in the rough and put them together on defense.

Melvin Ingram didn't miss a beat since arriving in the Steel City. Alex Highsmith's presence was felt constantly - ask the holding calls. The secondary was better than expected. Chris Wormley filled in for Stephon Tuitt without even allowing anyone to notice.

There isn't a weak link.

Now, it's hard to say any defense is the "NFL's best" in Week 1, especially after a 1 p.m. game. But holding the Bills to 44% on third down and only 16 points when they accumulated 371 yards means the big moments mattered - and were executed. That's a strong case for this defense.

Growing Pains on Offensive Line

The offensive line struggled throughout the entire game. Even in moments when Roethlisberger was able to make a play or Harris found some daylight - as rare as that way - it was no thanks to the group up front.

This was the team's biggest concern heading into the season and it quickly showed how concerning this season could be with them blocking.

The two rookies can grow. Kevin Dotson still looks sound and Trai Turner just needs to find his place within the group. Well, the offense needs to find what works with Turner.

There's one very concerning member of the group, though.

Steelers Need Zach Banner Back

Chuks Okorafor is bad. He was bad in the preseason and was bad in Week 1. The Steelers saw something when they moved Dan Moore Jr. to the left side and Okorafor back to the right after placing Zach Banner on IR.

When Banner comes back, Okorafor has to be the tackle getting the boot, right? If this offensive line wants to get any better, that's what will happen.

How much better this group can get is a big question. Starting with Okorafor is the right move.

Ben Roethlisberger Can't Take These Hits

Big Ben spent a large chunk of time on the ground in Week 1. He wasn't doing anything fancy or trying to extend plays; in fact, he was doing the opposite - throwing passes as quickly as possible so he could avoid the rush.

This offensive line can't let their quarterback take this beating. He's 39-years-old with two arthritic knees. You think he's going to hold up for 17 games?

Something needs to change before all this work for Roethlisberger's "last ride" is wasted because, you know, Roethlisberger can't play.

Special Teams, Special Teams, Special Teams

Isaiah McKenzie took the opening kickoff 75-yards and lit a flame under Danny Smith. From there, the coverage team was near perfect for the remainder of the game.

Tomlin said special teams captain Derek Watt took many of the key players during halftime and talked about improving their play. There's a reason he's a captain.

For the first time since 2018, the Steelers return team blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. Immediately, the Miles Killebrew was worth it.

This group was phenomenal during the preseason. It looked a little sketchy at first, but Smith has this unit in a good place.


Raise your hand if you felt coming into the game that the Steelers would be 1-0 leaving Buffalo.

Not many felt the Steelers had a chance against the Bills prior to Week 1, and for good reason. Pittsburgh doesn't have a reliable offensive line, their secondary was undecided and they were starting five rookies.

Even after the game started, there wasn't really a point you felt the Steelers had the upper hand. Somehow, though, perseverance pays off.

Pittsburgh moves to 1-0, heading back home to host the Las Vegas Raiders. Perhaps this team isn't as bad as many predicted. 

"1-0 always feels special," - T.J. Watt.

Noah Strackbein is a Publisher with AllSteelers. Follow Noah on Twitter @NoahStrack, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.

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