The Pittsburgh Steelers started inconsistently into 2018 and one quarter into the regular season found themselves sitting at 1-2-1 behind an offense that had yet to hit its groove and an inconsistent defense that gave up 29.0 points per game. Since then, however, things have changed in Pittsburgh and both the team’s offense and the team’s defense improved noticeably — helping the Steelers win six straight games.
During the win-streak, Pittsburgh’s defense surrendered just 18.2 points per game as the team started to play impressive complementary football. However, the Steelers proved to be a streaky team even in the defeat: the team lost each of its last three contests, giving up 27.0 per game in the process. Pittsburgh now stands at 7-5-1 and we are left wondering what to make of the team and its defense.
In order to help shed a light on the unit and preview its upcoming matchup against the New England Patriots, we spoke with Jeff Hartman who covers the Steelers as the editing manager for our sister site Behind the Steel Curtain. And Jeff’s confidence in Pittsburgh’s defense — at least when going against Tom Brady and company — appears to be rather limited, to say the least.
“There is absolutely zero evidence of me thinking the Steelers suddenly, and without Ryan Shazier, have the personnel to stop Tom Brady,” Jeff said about a team that has struggled mightily over the past few years against the Patriots and their Hall of Fame quarterback: New England won each of the teams’ last five meetings, while Brady averaged 324.8 passing yards, 2.8 touchdown passes and only 0.2 interceptions.
“The Patriots’ offense is always one step ahead of the Steelers’ defense, and that won’t likely change in Week 15,” Jeff continued about the matchup between the NFL’s 7th best scoring offense and 18th best scoring defense. “If the Steelers want to win, they have to hope for mistakes (dropped passes, turnovers) and holding the Patriots to field goals in hopes of winning a shootout. It won’t be easy, because it never is with New England.”
In order for them to do that, the Steelers need to rely on their strengths. Their pass rush appears to be one of them: the defense leads the NFL with 45 sacks. And according to Jeff, there is something else defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s unit also does well. “The Steelers’ defense does a good job against the run,” Jeff said. However, he quickly added that running backs could still hurt the team as potential pass catchers.
“If the Chargers loss has taught future opponents anything, it is moving players into the slot can be a recipe for success,” Jeff pointed out. “L.A. moved Keenan Allen into the slot, and he torched Pittsburgh the entire game. Last week Oakland did the same with Jared Cook, and had a very similar outing. I expect the Patriots to move players, [Rob Gronkowski] and running backs, into the slots to go against linebackers and/or smaller defensive backs.”
Gronkowski in particular is an interesting name: the 29-year old tight end is coming off arguably his best game of the season and will now go against a team that has had a tough time stopping him over the years. In six games against the Steelers, Gronkowski combined to catch 39 passes for 664 yards and eight touchdowns. Finding a way to slow him down has to be imperative for Butler and his group.
For Jeff, however, there appears to be only one viable battle plan against New England’s offense: “Pittsburgh will have to get creative if they want to slow them down.” Last year, the Steelers tried this approach by mixing in more man-to-man coverage into their normal zone schemes. The result was Gronkowski dominating en route to a Patriots comeback victory. On Sunday, we will see how Pittsburgh’s attempts at creativity will look this year.