The Steelers defense has been at or near the top of the NFL for most of the 2020 season in most statistical categories, but the unit that led Pittsburgh to the top of the NFL charts wasn’t exactly the same as the one that finished the team’s last game against Washington on Sunday.
The Steelers now have two starting linebackers that are out for the season with injuries in second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush and Pro Bowl candidate Bud Dupree, who missed his first game on Monday. Both players suffered ACL injuries.
Bush’s backup, Robert Spillane, went down on the first drive of the third quarter against Washington and the defense never looked the same with recently acquired Avery Williamson in his place. Washington seemed emphatic about targeting Pittsburgh’s first-line pass defense with running backs and tight ends.
On the back end, cornerback Steven Nelson missed the game with a knee injury and fellow starter Joe Haden left the game with a concussion, putting the Steelers down a pair of top-flight defensive backs.
It added up to a unit that got carved up in crunch time by a previously toothless Washington aerial attack, even while shutting down star receiver Terry McLaurin.
It adds up to a significant series of losses, especially two big ones mid-game in Haden and Spillane, whose absence Tomlin attributed to some miscommunications on defense in the second half.
Nelson should return this Sunday, barring a setback. Whoever starts at corner opposite and at inside linebacker, the Steelers will have to be prepared for an even more potent test in the Josh Allen-led Buffalo Bills this Sunday.
“We have to understand things are gonna happen throughout the year, whether it’s injuries, COVID, personal things that might go on, we have to be ready for all of that as a defense,” defensive captain Cam Heyward said on Wednesday. “I think we do a great job rotating, so when we do have to put that stress on other guys to step up, they’re not, foreign to it. If it does happen, or when it does happen, we just have to make sure we’re ready to accommodate that.”
The Steelers still have the No. 1 scoring defense in the league, with an average of 17.6 points allowed per game, and are third in yards allowed, second in yards per play and first in turnovers. But to continue that run, they’ll either need to get healthy once again or bring another round of backups up to speed quickly.