Thursday Morning Joe: Steelers Turned Accountability into High-Risk, High-Reward Defense

Noah Strackbein

The Steelers haven't just been a "good" defense this season. At 5-4, they haven't "kept their team a float" or just "done enough" to win. No - what the Pittsburgh defense has done through nine games of one of the most unforgiving seasons in franchise history has been unthinkable. 

The offense has had one 100-yard rusher, three different quarterbacks and, last week, started three tackles on the offensive line to try and boost their protection. That led to them scoring 10 points, punting nine times and giving up two fumbles; including a touchdown. 

At this point, no one is hiding the fact that the Steelers' season is somehow hopeful for any reason other than the defense. Their ability to click this season has taken them to the next level, and has allowed them to play trustworthy football. 

Joe Haden was flying all over the field in Week 10, deflecting ball after ball, diving to make plays that would eventually lead to a tip pass into the hands of Minkah Fitzpatrick for the game-winning interception. And watching, you got the sense that this team felt comfortable going the extra mile because they were reliant of the other 10 players to be there is it didn't work. 

"That's just a testament to our work," cornerback Cameron Sutton described it. "Like you said, we have guys like Minkah [Fitzpatrick] and Steve [Nelson], and the rest of the secondary, that fly around and make plays for us, and you know as anyone's job is always to compete and finish through the play, finish through the ball, finish through the catch, the tackle, whatever it is. So, we're not just relying on getting a guy down, every chance we get, every opportunity we get, we're trying to get the ball back for our offense and keep creating havoc out there on the field."

This havoc has forced 25 turnovers this season, leading the NFL through nine games. It's also kept a four-game winning streak alive. 

What's allowed it to happen, though, wasn't the sudden boost of team chemistry after starting 0-3. The Steelers took chances when their back was against the wall, and it's set them up for success. The talent they brought in over the offseason (Steven Nelson and Devin Bush) and the risk of trading a first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick, has made this unit complete, and with their confidence growing with every takeaway, they're able to make more plays by holding each other accountable. 

"We got a lot of talented guys who are very comfortable playing," Joe Haden said. "Bringing Minkah here was a great addition, I can't say that enough, and just everybody's really locked in and we try to communicate and do our best and I feel like we have so much talent, and we know that we have so much talent, that we hold ourselves to a high standard."

To keep this success ahead of them, the Steelers need to travel to Cleveland to take on a Browns team crowned preseason Super Bowl champions. Luckily, reality hasn't met expectations, but it doesn't take away from the skill level this team has on the roster. 

For the secondary, they're faced with stopping two receivers who've earned their place amongst the best in the league. A Pro Bowl duo in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, Cleveland has put together one of the scariest receiving cores in the NFL. 

"One of the best duos in the league," cornerback Mike Hilton described them. "We know what they're capable of, both of them are big playmakers on the outside. Baker [Mayfield] tries to find ways to give them the ball, and we know we just got to be ready. We know we're stepping into a hostile environment, AFC North game, it's a big one for both teams."

Slowing offenses has come easy to the Steelers, though. They've squared off with some of the toughest challenges this league has to offer and walked away victorious. Against poor offenses, they've really taken advantage. 

In Week 10, Jared Goff entered Heinz Field with 7 interceptions. Pittsburgh talked all week about slowing the run game, but after allowing Todd Gurley to run for 73 yards, it was ultimately the pass coverage that was able to keep the game in check. 

Mike Hilton was the first to say it starts with slowing the run game in Week 10. He was also the first to admit this defense knows how to adjust, and that they're smart enough to know how to stop an offenses strong point and take advantage of the weak links they have in the system.

"We just know what to focus on," Hilton said. "We find the offensive strength and most the teams we play like to run the ball so we know if we take away the run we make them on dimensional and with the guys on the backend we feel pretty confident with each other."

This week, that weak link could be Baker Mayfield. Cleveland has excelled in the run game, with Nick Chubb leading the way with 919 yards and 6 touchdowns this season. They've also added Kareem Hunt to the mix last week, quickly bringing him into the gam plan with 7 receptions and 30 rushing yards. 

Mayfield hasn't been as productive, though. The former first-overall pick and second-year quarterback has thrown 12 interceptions so far, and has been sacked 25 times - tying his rookie season total. 

Cameron Sutton brought the conversation back to Pittsburgh when talking about Mayfield's struggles. The Cleveland offense may not be clicking like they'd hoped, but they still have enough involved within it to make things happen. Sutton said the defense is aware, and knows they need to keep their energy high in order to go out and force the Browns to continue making mistakes. 

"Just playing our game," Sutton said. "Obviously good things happen when you're flying around and always working and moving towards the ball - whether it's an interception, a guy punching the ball out, breaking up a pass, whatever it is - we just have to play our game plan, play our style of football and put them in hard predicaments out there on the field, tough situations to where they get one dimensional.

We know with the turnovers they've had, they're still an explosive team, an explosive offense, and that's something we don't take for granted, don't take lightly. So obviously we know we have to smash the run game and then we know how dynamic they are in the pass game as well. So we can't let them get rolling in both of those areas. Just slow down the run game and when the ball's in the air, make a play for it."

So, rolling into Cleveland, the Steelers have one goal in mind - 6-4. Winning five straight puts them in a great position to work stay close with Baltimore and take another leg up on anyone chasing their playoff seed. 

It's not going to be easy. It never is. The AFC North may have started rocky, but it remains one of the most hard-fought divisions there is. Come Thursday night, Pittsburgh is prepared to battle however they need to in order to keep their winning ways alive. 

It'll come through the defense, and defensive coordinator Keith Butler couldn't put it any better as his team walks into FirstEnergy Stadium for the first time this season. 

"This is going to be a big game for them," Butler said. "It’s a big game for us too. It’s a dadgum division game. We’ve got to win the division, and so we’ve got to try to get into position where we can win the division, try to catch Baltimore. That’s going to be a task. So we’ve got our work cut out for us."

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