Friday, September 23, 2016

The Steelers' defense isn't awful, and that may be good enough

By Mark Madden
September 23, 2016

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The Steelers’ defense is only good in the red zone.
Perhaps that’s all it needs to be.
The Steelers’ defense has allowed foes to penetrate inside the 20 seven times. It has allowed just one touchdown.
That’s not luck or coincidence. Not totally, anyway. The Steelers’ defense is fast. It drops a lot of players into pass defense. If a quarterback has less than 30 yards of turf to work with, he’s got to be fairly precise to beat all that speed and all that coverage.
Kirk Cousins wasn’t. Andy Dalton wasn’t. The Steelers won’t face a quarterback who is until Tom Brady on Oct. 23. They might be 6-0 by then.
OK, probably not. The Steelers under Mike Tomlin very often lose games they shouldn’t. Would you settle for 5-1? 4-2?
But it’s nonetheless an intriguing formula on defense. In the latter part of his legendary tenure as defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau’s defense bent, then broke. Now his successor, Keith Butler, is utilizing much the same philosophy. Except breakage is minimal.
Keep things in front of you. Don’t allow big plays. Opponents sashay down the field at will. The Steelers allow 398 yards per game, including 347.5 through the air.
But foes get inside the 20 and run out of room. The Steelers’ speed closes down the confined space.
A top running back might help better navigate the red zone. But the Steelers’ front seven is relatively stout and, anyway, the Steelers won't often face an elite back. It’s a passing league.
The Steelers’ defense has guts, too: The opposition has converted just eight of 29 third- and fourth-down plays. It’s early days but, after 120 minutes, Butler’s unit has had a sense of the occasion.
Part of me believes that allowing all those yards will catch up with the Steelers.
But another part believes the defense will get better.
Cornerback Artie Burns has made mistakes. But he’s made plays, too. Same with fellow rookie Sean Davis at safety. Their roles must expand. Javon Hargrave, another first-year pro, is solid on the interior line.
If Ryan Shazier is healthy, he’s All-Pro. Shazier is ground zero when it comes to the Steelers’ speed. Crazy fast. Lawrence Timmons is aging rapidly. But, at inside linebacker next to Shazier, all Timmons has to be is steady.
Cam Heyward pressures the quarterback better than any 3-4 defensive end the Steelers have had. Stephon Tuitt isn’t far behind.
Consider linebacker Arthur Moats. He’s always listed as a backup. But he always winds up playing, and always does well.
Safety Mike Mitchell is the X factor. Injuries limited him during his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. But now, Mitchell appears to be 100 per cent and is contributing mightily. He’s no Troy Polamalu. But being a reasonable facsimile of Ryan Clark would do just fine.
Mitchell has a maddening habit of allowing short catches so he can deliver a big hit. But when you’re allowing 347.5 passing yards per game, 10 more won’t matter.
The Steelers’ defense will blow up occasionally. Brady figures to light up the scoreboard and the stat sheet when New England visits, even if the balls are over-inflated by his standard. A playoff date with the Patriots would present a real problem.
But legit QBs are rare, and rarer still on the Steelers schedule. Rookie Carson Wentz is off to a solid start in Philadelphia. But, come Sunday, he’s just another victim.
Given the offense’s capabilities, all the Steelers’ defense needs to do is not stink. So far, so good.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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