I was once told by a fairly ‘respected’ Pittsburgh Steelers’ writer that statistics don’t mean anything when talking football. Stats, he said, “were for Skip Bayless.” While I don’t necessarily disagree with that sentiment, there are however some numbers you just can’t avoid discussing and that number continues to center around ‘one.’
The Steelers’ defense was ranked number one in the league entering last week’s game in Dallas and also rated number one against the pass. Has the defense played well this year? Considering the problems on offense in recent weeks I’d say yes, but then there is Denver and Oakland and Tennessee and then Sunday in Dallas.
Fans can complain and make points about the injuries on Sunday and while those may not be completely thrown out, they cannot be an excuse. Every team deals with injuries. It’s the nature of the beast and you need to accept it.
Tony Romo completed 30 of 42 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns. He did not turn the ball over either which is something he typically does once or twice per week. When you have young guys in the secondary you have to find ways to help them and that falls on the guys along the front seven. Unfortunately, the pressure applied by these guys was minimal and far too infrequent. Had ‘Jerry World’ had a grass field, Romo still would have had a clean jersey at the end of the day.
James Harrison rarely got pressure and LaMarr Woodley was as absent as a Super Bowl Trophy in Cleveland. Yes, Harrison still made plays and that can’t go unmentioned, but both men are paid extremely well to get to the other team’s quarterback and Woodley especially is falling woefully short.
The front three, which we know are not necessarily responsible for getting pressure have done little of that anyway. Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood have had their moments but have been far too inconsistent. Cam Heyward is starting to become a disappointment in my mind. Two years in now and I have yet to see significant plays from him.
I’m still waiting for an explanation as to where Steve McLendon is? The guy who impressed last season and during the preseason continues to see far too few snaps in my opinion. That isn’t a knock on Casey Hampton, but McLendon needs more time on defense especially in passing situations.
What we have to realize is this defense is no longer ‘BlitzBurgh’ and anyone thinking it is has not watched this team this year or last for that matter. The speed on the edges is gone. Harrison and Woodley have never really been speed rushers anyway the way a Jason Gildon once was. Teams no longer worry about having to get rid of the ball quickly and they have chip-blocked less and less through the season.
So how does this defense have such a strong ranking then right? This is not as difficult to explain as you might think. First of all, the Steelers might be first in total defense but they are eighth in points allowed at 20.8 points given up per game. You know how the defense has been on the field a lot the last two weeks? Believe it or not, they are second in the league in terms of how much time they are on the field. That makes the 20 points given up per game even more glaring.
Perhaps the most disturbing stat for this defense is that they rank 28th in the league in takeaways. After last year’s dead-last rating, many of us thought that was just a hiccup but it is becoming a trend. In three of the last five seasons, the Pittsburgh defense has rated 23rd or below in takeaways. In the two years they were better, they were in the top 10.
Compare the Steelers’ defense to the top 10 in takeaways in 2012 and you’ll notice only two teams in that group that aren’t in the playoff hunt. There’s a correlation there and it can’t be denied. Teams that limit scoring and create turnovers are just as good as teams that have number one rankings.
Yes, health is always an issue as it is for every team, but this team relies far too much on letting other teams make mistakes rather than forcing them. The ‘bend-don’t-break’ mentality of Dick LeBeau is out of touch and no longer applicable with today’s game and especially with this team’s talent or lack thereof. The defense has to get younger and more importantly faster on the edges. If that means putting Woodley back to his down position at end that he played in college then so be it.
As troubled as this offense is, the defense isn’t exactly a model of perfection despite their ranking either. There is only one ‘number one’ we should be concerned with at the end of the season and that’s the number one team in the league, not defense. After all, where did the number one defensive ranking get us last year?
Marc Uhlmann writes for and co-owns www.steelcityblitz.com. Follow him on Twitter @steeldad and follow the website at @SCBlitz. He can be heard Mondays on Trib-Live Radio at 4pm ET talking Steelers.