It’s taken time.
Early on this season, it looked like the Steelers were going to be forced to simply win shoot-outs all year in order to win games. The defensive stats? They were bad. With steady improvement though, the Steelers’ defense now ranks 11th in yards per game, 9th in points per game, 11th in sacks, and 4th in rush defense.
They’re not there yet. I think there are factors that have inflated some of those stats; namely playing bad offenses over the past few weeks. Several sacks yesterday I thought were more a result of Tyrod Taylor holding the ball too long and running into sacks.
That being said, I still think that we might be seeing the beginning of another really good defense in the works.
What encourages me the most is that unlike some of the last defenses we saw playing well in Pittsburgh, it’s mainly young guys that are stepping up and making plays. Stephon Tuitt and Ryan Shazier are becoming two of the best players in the NFL at their positions. It’s too early to say for sure yet, but it appears as if the Steelers may have knocked the 2016 NFL draft out of the park.
Artie Burns has taken his lumps this season but appears to be the type of guy that’s learning from his mistakes. Confidence is big at the cornerback position and his doesn’t seem to waver when he gives up a big play or matches up with someone like Odell Beckham Jr. His ball skills on the outside are a skillset we haven’t seen here in some time. Fellow rookie defensive back Sean Davis appears much more comfortable at the position he was drafted to play. Many worried about his large number of missed tackles in college but he’s been a great all-around safety both in the run and pass game since take over as the starter. While it’s unfortunate he got hurt, Javon Hargrave appeared to be getting more opportunities and making more plays as he filled in more for Cam Heyward.
It was great to see Bud Dupree get involved in the pass rush on Sunday. His athleticism and his motor are going to get him some games like that, but to go to the next level he needs to work on his repertoire of moves. To me, the trajectory of Dupree’s progress will be huge for whether this defense is good, or great. You can’t be a great defense in January, against great players like Tom Brady unless you can get to them. I expect at least 1 high draft pick this April to be an edge rusher, but this position takes time to develop… Bud stepping it up in his development could fast track the entire team’s success.
I think the guys mentioned above may one day be your future stars of this defense. And when I say future I think that could be as early as 2017. After those names though, plenty of other guys fill their roles well and are great pieces on this team. Ross Cockrell may not have the upside that Burns possesses but right now he’s the most reliable cornerback they have on the outside. I love the toughness he brings to the position. Mike Mitchell, while frustrating at times brings a needed intimidation factor. He’ll whiff on some plays but they could do much worse than him at that spot. Lawrence Timmons has bounced back very well from a bad 2015 season, and if I had to guess I’d bet he re-signs to a manageable deal to retire a Pittsburgh Steeler.
Like I said, they’re there yet. There is work to do, but I would not be shocked if the Steelers defense was playing really well in 2017, and we look back and say that this recent stretch of games was really the beginning of the turnaround.