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Bell: Ranking Top Five Defenses on Steelers 2024 Schedule

Steelers Now analyst Derrick Bell ranks the top five defenses that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face during the 2024 season.

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Browns Steelers Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 19, 2022. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Much has been made about how difficult the Steelers schedule will be this upcoming season. We’ve already talked about the gauntlet of talented passers that the team will face in 2024 but the slate of defenses looks equally as tough. Pittsburgh’s defense figures to be a top unit once again this season but will Arthur Smith and the new-look offense have enough firepower to put up enough points in these matchups? The answer to that question likely decides whether or not they will make the postseason.

5. Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys defense was very good once again last year, which is a primary reason that Dan Quinn was able to secure another head coaching opportunity. In 2023, the unit finished 5th in scoring and 4th in defensive EPA/play. Micah Parsons is the engine behind the entire operation with his quickness and ability to rush effectively from multiple different alignments. His running mate DeMarcus Lawrence usually doesn’t put up the gaudy stats but he’s very stout at the point of attack. They have a talented cornerback duo in Trevor Diggs and Daron Bland who are both incredibly opportunistic with the ball in the air, even if that aggressive approach yields some big plays from time to time. 

Pittsburgh Steelers Micah Parsons

JACKSONVILLE, FL – DECEMBER 18: Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (11) sacks Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Jacksonville Jaguars on December 18, 2022 at tIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire)

The reason that Dallas isn’t higher on this list is that their run defense was shaky last season, finishing dead last in rushing success rate. Part of that was their propensity to play with lighter bodies at the linebacker spot but the interior defensive line is still a question mark. We know that the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is going to want to pound the rock and that’s where they appear to have the advantage in this matchup. The star power alone should be enough to lift this group into a top-10 ranking by years end and time will tell if new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer can help patch some of their holes. 

4. Baltimore Ravens

Last season, the Baltimore Ravens finished as the number one scoring defense in part because of how stingy they were in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on only 40.8% of trips. Roquan Smith patrols the middle and has established himself as one of the best two-way linebackers in the game. Second-year safety Kyle Hamilton is an absolute weapon in the slot, with his ability to cover different body types while also being an effective blitzer when called upon. What made Baltimore so effective is that they were able to come up with creative simulated pressures while reducing the amount of explosive plays allowed which plagued them in years prior.

Steelers Playoff Ravens Kyle Hamilton

Baltimore Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton (14) defends during an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, in Pittsburgh, PA. (AP Photo/Matt Durisko)

Mike Tomlin’s squad has gotten the better of John Harbaugh’s in recent seasons but that’s mostly due to the matchup on the other side of the ball. The Steelers offense has been just good enough but they haven’t scored more than 20 points against this defense since 2020. The biggest question looming around the Ravens defense is how will they compensate for the loss of defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald? They’re done a good job of developing talent on that side of the ball with Justin Madubuike as the latest example. If they can get one of their young edge rushers to take a sizable step forward, this defense shouldn’t miss a beat.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and the rest of the Kansas City Chiefs offense draw headlines for good reason but we can’t forget how impressive this defense was last season. They were fantastic against the pass last season, finishing third in net yards allowed per attempt and second in success rate. In the spring, we saw a plethora interior pass rushers get paid the big bucks and Chris Jones was the rightful recipient of a market setting deal. Even without Willie Gay, who departed via free agency, their trio of linebackers set the tone defensively and have nice complimentary skill sets. Steve Spagnuolo is one of the best defensive minds of this era, with his ability to scheme up pressure and come up with unique game plans regardless of opponent. 

The departure of L’Jarius Sneed leaves a big hole in the secondary and will likely push emerging second-year cornerback Trent McDuffie to the boundary. Kansas City has developed unheralded cornerbacks in the past but Sneed had some pretty special performances last season versus top wideouts and how this group functions without that skill set is a question mark. The Steelers haven’t faced off against the Chiefs since the wild card loss in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game and so much change has taken place on both sides. This unit has a lot of youth and thus, tons of room to continue growing and barring a rash of injuries, they should be one of the better defenses in the league again in 2024. 

Steelers Brows Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

Cleveland Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah runs out of the tunnel for a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 19, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

2. Cleveland Browns

Part of the reason that the Steelers schedule looks tough is because of how competitive the AFC North predicts to be and the Cleveland Browns have a valid claim as the best defense in the division. After bringing in Jim Schwartz, the city finally got to see the group play up to its talent level. Defensive end Myles Garrett needs no introduction after winning defensive player of the year honors in 2023 after totaling 14 sacks. The cornerback trio of Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome and Martin Emerson allows them to play a ton of single high knowing that they have capable coverage players to match up on an island. This is an attacking defense that takes the fight to an offense on every single down. 

This scheme is an aggressive one but can be a bit predictable because it’s very much a “roll the ball out and beat you” style by nature and you saw the Houston Texans take advantage of that in the postseason. Similar to the conversation above with the Ravens, the Steelers weren’t really able to move the ball against this group last season but we’re able to split the series. They didn’t make any splash signings in free agency but if newly signed Jordan Hicks can provide stability alongside Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, that would be a big bonus for them. 

Haason Reddick Super Bowl Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles outside linebacker Hassan Reddick in a game against the Washington Football Team on Sept. 25, 2022. — All Pro Reels Photography

1. New York Jets

And coming in at the top spot on this list is the New York Jets, who were an afterthought last season, but that had little to do with their defense. They still finished fourth in points per drive even though their putrid offense consistently put them in tough spots from a field position perspective. Sauce Gardner has launched himself into the elite cornerback tier thanks to his rare length combined with the ability to play at and off the line of scrimmage. Along the defensive line, Quinnen Williams is a star that is coming off a campaign in which he finished top five in pressures and pass rush win-rate according to PFF. C.J. Moseley had a nice year in 2023 which gives them a foundational playmaker at all three levels. 

In free agency, they picked up Haason Reddick and Javon Kinlaw who are both effective pass rushers but underwhelming run defenders. The surplus of talent around them should minimize that to a degree but it’s worth noting. The Steelers didn’t face this team last season but their matchup in 2022 came down to the wire and we should expect a similar competitive showdown in primetime. Even if you’re not a believer in Robert Saleh as a head coach or a 40-year old Aaron Rodgers, it’s still reasonable to expect a better, more stable environment for the Jets defense this upcoming season. 

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