Steelers defense seems to be improving: Is it?


The Steelers defense seems to be improving. It seems to be better than last year. It seems to be kind of even good. I’m not saying it’s the best. I’m not saying there isn’t room to improve. Most Steelers observers would agree however that just by eye-balling the situation it looks as if the downward trend the defense has been on for several years has seen its valley and is now climbing back up.

The linebacker crew, composed of four 1st round draft picks, looks like it’s coming together. Timmons has been great for years. Shazier seems to be poised to, assuming he doesn’t continue his getting injured every few games trend, be a star. Backups Sean Spence and Vince Williams are plenty capable.

Bud Dupree already has two sacks. Jarvis Jones has put on some weight and although he hasn’t gotten a sack yet is certainly not a liability out there. Harrison is defying time itself and Moats has found his footing mid-career.

On the defensive line, McNoseTackle, composed of Daniel McCullers and Steve McLendon, has become a solid and serviceable plug in the middle. The defensive ends are where that unit really shines. Cam Heyward has been one of the best defenders in Pittsburgh for a few years and seems to get better every year. Stephon Tuitt is turning into a star himself.

The secondary is still the weak spot but with two interceptions in the last two games it seems to be coming together. William Gay continues to be solid. Mike Mitchell has emerged from his 1st season funk and is an asset on the back end. Antwon Blake hits hard and does his work. Will Allen keeps everyone in their spot. And Ross Cockrell looks like a great offseason pickup at this point.

Like I said, they aren’t perfect. They miss far too many tackles. They could go after the ball more. Blah blah blah. But, Kieth Butler is getting more aggressive and the players are following suit.

But is the defense actually good? Is it actually better? Let’s figure it out.

First, let’s compare last years stats to this years stats and where they rank along with the rest of the league.

The following stats are the category and how it played out per game in 2014, then 2015, and then the spread. The spread is 2015 minus 2014. In parenthesis is same but with the league rank.

2014 and 2015

Points and Rank: 2014 – 23.0 pts (18) / 2015 – 18.8 (6) / spread – -4.2 pts (-12)

Total Yards and Rank: 2014 – 353.4 yards (18) / 2015 – 346.0 yards (14) / spread – -7.4 yards (-4)

Passing Yards and Rank: 2014 – 253.1 yards (26) / 2015 – 232.8 yards (14) / spread – -20.3 yards (-12)

Rushing Yards and Rank: 2014 – 100.3 yards (6) / 2015 – 113.2 yards (19) / spread – +12.9 yards (+13)

Takeaways per game: 2014 – 1.31 takeaways / 2015 – 1.0 takeaways / spread – -.31 takeaways

Sacks per game: 2014 – 2.06 sacks / 2015 – 3.5 sacks / spread – +1.44 sacks

My interpretation of these stats is that yes, the defense does appear to be getting better. I base this assessment on a couple things. First, they give up less points, significantly less. They’re the 6th ranked team in points scored against them. 4.2 less points per game. Can’t argue with that, the scoreboard is ultimately what decides the game.

They give up less yards per game as well. That’s a pretty big indicator. The passing game seems to have particularly improved. More than 20 less per game. That’s a solid chunk.

Rushing yards, they’re giving up more however. That’s a deceptive stat though. They were the 6th ranked rushing defense last year. In my opinion, that’s only because their pass defense was so bad teams didn’t need to run, and their offense was so good teams needed to catch up. So falling 13 places, I don’t think that’s as bad as it looks. I wouldn’t put much weight into that.

Takeaways, they’re down slightly, but they’re improving as the season goes on, as we’ll see later. And the sacks are up by a full sack and a half. Less points, less yards, and more sacks sounds pretty good.

So based on this it does look to this reviewer like the Steelers defense is better than last year.

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Better, but are they good? We’ve already seen the rankings but as we know the Steelers have the toughest schedule in the league and no team has played the same 4 teams. So, especially with only 4 games in, it’s tough to judge based on rankings.

But, although no team has played the same 4 teams, those 4 teams have played 4 other teams. So we can at least get a wider perspective by looking at the game as follows.

Listed below is each game. Then, several statistical categories. We have how the Steelers did against them in the each category, followed by how all others have done against that team in that category on average through the first 4 games. Then the spread, composed of the opponent’s average minus how they did against the Steelers.

Game by Game

Week 1: Steelers vs Patriots

Points: Total – 28 pts / Opponent avg – 39.7 pts/ spread – -11.7 pts

Yards: Total – 361 yards / Opponent avg – 446.3 yards/ spread – -85.3 yards

Passing Yards: Total – 281 yards / Opponent avg – 359.3 yards / spread – -78.3 yards

Rushing Yards: Total – 80 yards / Opponent avg – 87.0 yards / spread – -7.0 yards

Other stats: Takeaways – 0 / Sacks – 2

Week 2: Steelers vs 49ers

Points: Total – 18 pts / Opponent avg – 15.0 pts / spread – +3.0 pts

Yards: Total – 409 yards / Opponent avg – 320.0 yards / spread – +89.0 yards

Passing Yards: Total – 298 yards / Opponent avg – 172.0 yards / spread – +126.0 yards

Rushing Yards: Total – 111 yards / Opponent avg – 148.0 yards / spread – -37.0 yards

Other stats: Takeaways – 1 / Sacks – 5

Week 3: Steelers vs Rams

Points: Total – 6 pts / Opponent avg – 16.7 yards / spread – -10.7 pts

Yards: Total – 258 yards / Opponent avg – 274.3 yards / spread – -16.3 yards

Passing Yards: Total – 187 yards / Opponent avg – 203.0 yards / spread – -16.0 yards

Rushing Yards: Total – 71 yards / Opponent avg – 71.3 yards / spread – -0.3 yards

Other stats: Takeaways – 1 / Sacks – 2

Week 4: Steelers vs Ravens (OT)

Points: Total – 23 pts / Opponent avg – 23.2 pts / spread – -0.2 yards

Yards: Total – 356 yards/ Opponent avg – 355.0 yards / spread – +1 yards

Passing Yards: Total – 165 yards / Opponent avg – 252.8 yards / spread – -87.8 yards

Rushing Yards: Total – 191 yards / Opponent avg – 102.2 yards / spread – +88.8 yards

Other stats: Takeaways – 2 / Sacks – 5

So again, I conclude from this that the Steelers defense is, I’ll say, good. By good, I mean good enough. They’re not a total liability. The defense is capable of making a positive difference in the game. They do better than average in most categories, and overall, relative to the how other teams do. More minus than plus. Also, their takeaways are increasing.

This improvement is in large part based on the emergence of the defensive ends and outside linebackers, the maintaining of a strong inside linebacker group, and the settling of the secondary. In the preseason and during week 1 it looked like the Kieth Butler experiment might be a disaster. That’s not so apparent at this point.

It’s still early, but what we can say, definitively, if nothing else, is that there is reason for optimism. This defense can be good and can keep getting better. And that’s more than we’ve been able to say in a long time.

Next: Steelers change kickers again

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