PITTSBURGH — There is a lot of consternation in Steelers land after the team’s 23-19 win over the Green Bay Packers that the 6-3 start to the 2023 season might not be sustainable for the Black and Gold.
To be clear, those concerns are coming almost exclusively from the fanbase. The team isn’t worried about how it wins. Those that have been around long enough know how hard it is to win in the NFL. Those that haven’t are probably just happy to win.
“A win is a win,” safety Damontae Kazee said. “It’s hard to win in this league, so I’m going to be grateful and be happy and I ain’t gotta be stressed this week.”
But after the Steelers won their sixth one-possession game, and were out-gained by their opponent for the ninth straight game, the fanbase has become very concerned that this game plan is just not sustainable.
On offense, that’s probably true. It feels impossible to expect a team without a consistent passing offense to continue to win games at a 66% clip. But the defense is another story.
This is the Steelers defense functioning basically as it was intended to, which might sound strange, because the Steelers sit at 26th in the league in yards allowed. They’re 22nd in pass defense, and 23rd in run defense, and according to most yards-based statistics, appear to be a below-average unit.
But that only tells part of the story. The Steelers are tied for 10th in points allowed, which is the entire point of the exercise. Furthermore, they’re tied for first in takeaways and first in turnover differential.
As the Steelers have tweaked their defensive philosophy over the years, they’ve come to grips with the realization that it is basically impossible to play defense in today’s NFL. The rules are too skewed toward the offense to defend every blade of grass, down in and down out, every week of the season.
The 1975 Steelers defense gave up more than 200 yards just three times over the course of the season, and none after Week 3. But Mel Blount and Jack Lambert aren’t walking through that door, and if they did, they’d be closely followed by Roger Goodell, handing out fines and suspensions.
Today’s offenses, especially the ones with good quarterback play and high-level coordinators, are going to gain ground. It’s nearly impossible to stop them. What is possible is limiting their drives to field goals instead of touchdowns and taking away the ball.
That’s exactly what the Steelers have been going for on defense, and it’s been working. The Steelers have finished first in sacks in three of the last four seasons. They’ve finished first or second in interceptions in three of the last four seasons.
The Steelers paid Alex Highsmith a king’s ransom to be their second-best edge rusher and made Minkah Fitzpatrick the second-highest-paid safety in football because those guys help create those splash plays.
Even in moves that are farther down the line, the Steelers let Terrell Edmunds walk and went with Kazee, a far better ball hawk, at strong safety. Kazee isn’t as big, doesn’t tackle as well, and isn’t as good of a man-to-man cover matchup for physical tight ends. The thing he does better than Edmunds is create takeaways. And there he was on Sunday, sealing a game with an interception at the goal line.
That’s not luck. That’s understanding what really matters when it comes to playing defense in the NFL and then, within the constraints of a salary-capped league, choosing to excel at those things instead of trying to be great at everything.
The yards against for the Steelers defense will probably come down, as well. They play just two games against teams in the top half of yardage offenses in the remainder of the season: Baltimore is third and Indianapolis is ninth.
They’ve also played just two series with all of Highsmith, Cam Heyward, Fitzpatrick and T.J. Watt on the field at the same time this season. Key contributors that were rookies at the start of the year, Keeanu Benton and Joey Porter Jr. are only going to continue to improve.
The injuries at inside linebacker are concerning, but that’s not what the focus of this defense was. That splash will still be there for them. It’s not luck, it’s the plan and it’s working.