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Steelers Analysis

Steelers Defense Keeps Finding Ways to Come Up Big



Steelers T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrates after sacking Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Through the first five games of the 2023 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has not necessarily been a statistically great unit, but it has been unbelievably opportunistic.

The Steelers are tied for second in the NFL in takeaways per game, and they’ve maximized the impact of those takeaways by the game situation and field position they’ve come in.

Alex Highsmith had a pick six on the first play of the game, causing the Cleveland Browns to play from behind the rest of the way, and then T.J. Watt returned a fumble for a touchdown to seal it.

Joey Porter Jr. intercepted Lamar Jackson in the end zone, and then the Steelers offense took the ball and scored a touchdown for a 14-point swing that ultimately decided that game.

Sunday, they did it again. The Steelers got just one takeaway in their 24-17 win against the Los Angeles Rams, but it became a huge turning point in the game.

The Steelers took the ball at the start of the game and promptly went three-and-out with their still-struggling offense. That offense scored just three points in the first half, the defense allowed a touchdown right before the half, and the Rams came out of the locker room with the opportunity to push through for a seemingly insurmountable two-score lead.

Instead, on the first play of the second half, Watt played takeaway. 

The Rams were in 11 personnel, with three wide receivers on the field, one tight end and one running back. The Steelers curiously countered with base defense, leaving just two cornerbacks to cover three receivers.

Rams offensive guru Sean McVay pushed that advantage farther by lining his running back up to the boundary of the formation, leaving two wide receivers on the inside.

That left the Steelers with wide receivers Puka Nacua and Ben Skowronek lined against linebackers Cole Holcomb and Watt. It looked like a huge advantage for the Rams. Stafford fell for the bait.

The Steelers played a version of Cover 2, with Watt passing Skowronek back to safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joey Porter Jr. sitting down in a flat zone on the outside. That left Watt without a man in his zone, so he moved over to double cover Kupp, just as the All-Pro had broken free from Holcomb Stafford was letting the ball go.

Watt is no coverage specialist. He has 17 coverage snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus. The play works not because he’s a coverage savant, but because the Steelers put a star player where the Rams weren’t thinking they’d need to account for him.

“Just eyes on the quarterback,” Watt said. “He worked his way back to my side of the field and I was able to jump in front of him and make a play.

The Steelers remain a middle-of-the-road defense in terms of yardage and points allowed. They have been outgained in every single game this season. But their ability to come up with big plays when the team needs them most is probably the single biggest reason that a team that is struggling to find consistency on both sides of the ball is currently 4-2.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that can do it,” Fitzpatrick said. “When you’re in the right position consistently, the ball finds good players.”