Inside the Pittsburgh Steelers' Elite Defensive Start to 2020
Sometimes you just need to remind everybody that you're the toughest kid on the block.
The Pittsburgh Steelers did exactly that on Sunday, emerging victorious over division rival Cleveland with a final of 38-7. Prior to the game, the Browns possess playmakers across the offensive depth chart and posed what many believed to be a serious threat against one of the league's best defenses.
That's all Cleveland did, however: Pose. Leaving Heinz Field after going just 1-12 on third down (and 0-3 on fourth down) with seven points to their names likely wasn't in the plans of Cleveland's offensive playmakers.
With a record of 5-0, that appears to be a common theme among opposing offenses. Pittsburgh's defense has produced optimal results thus far, allowing a mere 18.8 points per game (T-3rd in the league) while allowing 285.2 yards per game, second only to Tampa Bay's 282 average.
While all cylinders are required to be firing in order for a defensive unit to be as successful as Pittsburgh's, it's no secret a dominant Steelers pass rush has allowed for other pieces of the puzzle to fall into place thus far.
The 1984 Chicago Bears currently hold the NFL record for most team sacks in a regular season, tallying a whopping 72. Should the Steelers continue their blistering pace of 4.8 sacks per game, they're set to eclipse that historic mark.
Outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt have continued their impressive production from 2019, currently combining for 9.5 of Pittsburgh's 24 sacks thus far. While Dupree leads the team with 5 sacks, Watt ranks as Pro Football Focus' highest-graded edge defender thus far. The Steelers also possess an active 62 game streak with a registered sack, which currently stands as the longest such streak in the NFL.
Ten different players have a sack attributed to them on the defensive side of the ball, and with Pittsburgh blitzing at a league-high rate of 46.3%, opposing offenses continually must be conscious of any defender around the line of scrimmage at all times.
While the front seven has certainly dominated in the pass-rush department, their run defense has been equally impressive. The Steelers are currently the only team in the NFL league that does not have 100 or more rushing attempts against them, and with Pittsburgh allowing a mere 66.2 yards per game on the ground (second to Tampa Bay's 64.3), that's quite understandable.
Defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward have been extremely key in both rushing the passer and containing ball-carriers, yet Tyson Alualu has been the unsung hero in a star-studded Steelers defense. Playing just 43% of snaps, Alualu has managed to make his presence felt when needed despite not stuffing the stat sheet at extreme levels.
Linebacker Vince Williams has performed admirably thus far in 2020, tying Watt for a team-high 10 tackles for loss. With tremendous defensive linemen plugging gaps at the very worst on each play, Pittsburgh's defense rises when inside linebackers such as Williams are able to make plays when necessary, and Williams' job thus far of exploding into the backfield is to be commended.
The loss of inside linebacker Devin Bush will certainly be felt, as Bush ranked second on the team with 26 tackles prior to tearing his ACL. AllSteelers' Noah Strackbein believes Robert Spillane, Ulysees Gilbert and Marcus Allen will all assist in filling in during Bush's absence, with Spillane being the main contributor as confirmed by Mike Tomlin:
"We've got a great deal of confidence in Robert, and we'll largely go with him in the replacement of Devin," Tomlin said to media on Tuesday. "Through game planning we will look at options in terms of dividing the labor, but Robert will be the primary man responsible for replacing Devin. We're excited about watching him play and play to the standard of our expectations."
Bush was one of five defensive players to play more than 90% of snaps prior to his injury, and while Spillane likely won't sniff those numbers, the small sample size of play last Sunday and Tomlin's confidence should bode well, initially. Spillane sure knows how to make his presence felt when introducing himself to ball-carriers.
When it comes to the secondary, the majority of questions surrounding the defense resided within the defensive backfield. Most notably, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick remained relatively quiet in producing turnovers.
All doubts were put to rest on Sunday, as Fitzpatrick turned in a performance that finally put his name back in headlines:
Through five games, Pittsburgh currently ranks top three in the NFL in opposing passer rating (79.6), completion percentage (58.5%) and interceptions (8). Cornerback Joe Haden has played steadily this season, who allowed a mere 48% completion percentage when covering receivers prior to assisting in holding receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to just two catches last week.
If Alualu is the unsung hero of Pittsburgh's front seven, Mike Hilton retains those honors in the secondary. Hilton's 29 tackles is a team-high, while also netting three sacks, three passes defended and one fumble recovery thus far. Hilton, primarily playing out of the slot, has been pivotal around the line of scrimmage thus far.
After a fairly rough start that saw impressive passing performances from lesser-talented quarterbacks, it appears the Steelers have improved upon communication issues, although effectively dropping into zone defense remains an achilles heel of the team. With Ryan Tannehill next on deck, week eight will provide a true test in Pittsburgh's abilities in the back end.
With the offense beginning to find their rhythm with back to back 30 point outings, the Steelers have established themselves as one of the top teams in the league early on. However, should the Steelers wish to make a deep run into the postseason, their defense will be the main proprietor of hoisting a Lombardi trophy.
Tough tests await Pittsburgh, as road trips to Tennessee and Baltimore feature two of the more prominent offenses in the league. While it remains to be seen how the aforementioned matchups pan out, the Steelers currently remain undefeated thanks to superb play on the defensive side of the ball.