While the offense gets all the headlines, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense deserves more credit for the team’s success.
The Steelers are known for their prolific offense with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back James Conner leading the way behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
But its defense is the unsung hero, giving Roethlisberger a chance to win games with his trusty right arm.
Nowhere was this more evident than last Sunday when the Steelers scored twice in the final five minutes of the game to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars 20-16. Roethlisberger drew rave reviews by driving the Steelers down the field for both scores. The last one came as he dove in the end zone with five seconds left in the game.
Pittsburgh Steelers Defense Was Key to Victory in Jacksonville
But it was the defense which gave Roethlisberger a chance to pull off his theatrics. Despite giving up 147 rushing yards in the first half, Pittsburgh held Jacksonville to three field goals. Behind 9-0, the Jaguars then did score a touchdown in the third quarter to take a 16-0 lead.
After the Jaguars scored that touchdown, though, the Steelers defense stiffened. Jacksonville had the ball four times but ended up with minus three yards in 13 plays. Even one first down on any of those possessions could have ended the Steelers chances for a victory by taking valuable time off the clock.
But the Steelers defense was up to the task, shutting down the Jaguars, who gained only 11 yards on 11 runs on those final four possessions. Some criticized the Jaguars for relying solely on running back Leonard Fournette on those drives. They said that Jaguars should have opened up their offense when it was clear that the Steelers were keying on Fournette. However, those critics forget that the Steelers sacked Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles three times on those four possessions for minus 14 yards.
Faced with a ferocious pass rush from the Steelers, who lead the NFL with 37 sacks, Jacksonville had little choice but to give Fournette a chance to win the game.
This Game Was Different From Last Year
The game was a far cry from the last time the two teams played each other last December in the AFC playoffs. The Jaguars jumped out to a 21-0 lead on their way to 45-42 victory.
Every time the Steelers tried to get back in the game, the Jaguars offense took control, moving the ball at will against the Black and Gold defense. The Steelers did get back in the game, scoring a touchdown midway through the third quarter to cut the Jaguars’ lead to 28-21. However, the Jaguars scored two more touchdowns to take a commanding 42-21 lead.
The Steelers scored a touchdown with two minutes left. They tried an onside kick which the Jaguars recovered and then kicked a field goal to put the game away. Pittsburgh scored in the final seconds to make the score closer than what it actually was.
Roethlisberger played one of the best games of his career, completing 37 of 58 passes for 469 yards and five touchdowns, but it didn’t matter because the defense couldn’t stop the Jaguars.
Ryan Shazier‘s Injury Crippled the Defense
The defense, of course, was without their All-Pro inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a season-ending and in all likelihood career-ending spinal injury in the 10th game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals. Before Shazier’s injury, the Steelers had been giving up an average of 19 points per game. After his injury, the Steelers gave up 27 points per game, including 38 to the Baltimore Ravens, 27 to the New England Patriots and 24 to the Cleveland Browns.
Many Steelers fans were disappointed when the Steelers drafted safety Terrell Edmunds instead of an inside linebacker to replace Shazier. The Steelers did bring in two veteran free agents in Joe Bostic, an inside linebacker, and Morgan Burnett, a safety, but both were looked upon as journeymen lacking Shazier’s skilled talents.
For the first four games of the season, the Steelers defense struggled, giving up an average of 30 points per game. No wonder Pittsburgh started the season by going 1-2-1. But then players started settling into their roles on the revamped defense. One big change was the benching of cornerback Artie Burns, who was getting burned regularly. Coty Sensabaugh replaced him, and the defense began clamping down on opponents. No more were wide receivers and tight ends running free in the Steelers secondary. Instead, offenses found it tough score on the Steelers defense.
In their six-game winning streak, the Steelers have given up only 19 points per game. Overall, they now rank 10th, giving up an average of 22.5 points per game. They’re seventh in pass defense, giving up only 227 yards per game and ninth in rush defense yielding only 99.6 yards per game on the ground.
Tough Schedule Ahead
But the Steelers defense will be sorely tested in their remaining six games. They visit the Denver Broncos (this week) and Oakland Raiders, where the Steelers have played poorly in recent years. They also must travel for a game against Drew Brees and the red-hot New Orleans Saints.
They also have home games against Philip Rivers and the 7-3 Los Angeles Chargers and Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. That game will most likely be a must-win game. They finish the season at home against their bitter division rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals.
So, it figures to be a tough road ahead for the Steelers. But if the defense keeps on improving, the unit will get the credit it deserves. Combined with the prolific offense, it could lead to a seventh Super Bowl victory for the legendary franchise.