October 19, 2017
Ryan Shazier tackles Giovani Bernard in their 2016 playoff game. (USA Today Sports)
The results are different. Many players are different. But as the film of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense rolls inside the meeting rooms at Paul Brown Stadium this week, make no mistake, this group ranked third in yards and fourth in points allowed hasn’t changed.
This is prototypical Steelers defense. The reputation built over generations of leading the league has returned. As for what that looks like, just take tape of recent relatively subpar seasons and hit x16 on the DVR.
“They are fast as hell,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said.
The past three years the Steelers attempted to rebuild a group that spent much of the early portion of this century lofted atop the defensive rankings. The process has taken time to mold. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell replaced the defense as the calling card of Pittsburgh football.
In fact, after back-to-back years leading the league in points allowed from 2010-11, they gradually regressed outside of the top 10, until ranking 10th again last year.
Struggles in the secondary and pass rush often were to blame.
No more. Now with seven of the 11 starters 24 years old or younger and new pieces scattered across all three levels, the zone schemes that built the reputation are matched by the ability to execute. In a hurry.
In 2015, they ranked 30th in passing yards allowed. They currently lead the NFL.
“The scheme doesn’t change,” said Marvin Lewis. “The zone blitz started in 1993, and they continue to plug guys in while everybody else stays in their spots. So that helps you play well. As they plug in new pieces, they’re able to use their abilities as best they can within the game plan.”
The new pieces are providing depth and versatility. The development should ring familiar for Bengals fans. The exact same dynamic is happening in stripes. You’ll have a hard time finding two defenses with brighter futures than the two sharing Heinz Field on Sunday.
While the Bengals point to pass rusher Carl Lawson, the Steelers match with first-round pick OLB T.J. Watt. The Bengals proudly boast rising 2016 draft picks Nick Vigil and William Jackson III, the Steelers do the same watching 2016 picks CB Artie Burns (first round), DT Javon Hargrave (third round) and S Sean Davis (second round) excel as starters.
Fresh faces are as much a part of the NFL story as sacks and interceptions, but new players don’t always mean new results. In the parallel paths of the Bengals and Steelers, they have.
“Some of our young players are not new to us, they are getting into the prime of their careers — mid-20s — it’s a natural maturation that has taken place for a number of individuals,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s showing for us collectively. There is an appearance they are playing faster because they have more experience and understanding of how what they are doing fits into the big picture. That allows you to hustle and play free.”
Nobody plays freer than Ryan Shazier, not new to the Bengals or the nightmares of running back Giovani Bernard, who took one of the nastiest hits in PBS history in the January 2016 playoff game.
“I feel like it starts with him,” Uzomah said of Shazier.
He’s ascended to be one of the premier linebackers in football and for a defense impressing with their speed, anticipation and tracking of tight ends and running backs jumps off the page. He ranks fifth in the NFL in tackles, already forced two fumbles, picked off two passes and broke up six more.
Couple his range with the addition of former Browns cornerback Joe Haden along with instant success from Burns, selected one pick after Jackson III last year, and the stiff pass defense makes perfect sense.
“The two corners, you can go complete quarters of a game watching and hardly notice them, and that’s a compliment,” Bengals receivers coach James Urban said. “The ball isn’t pushed out that way because they are playing the scheme so well. That is the whole thing. The linebacker-level players get in the lanes and make you make throws you shouldn’t make or take away throws you think you can make because of how they leverage the ball.”
Different, but the same.
“They're younger,” said A.J. Green, who caught only two passes for 38 yards in his lone game against the Steelers last year. “But they still play the same way, they play sound defense. They make you play the sticks, they drive the ball, no big plays.”
The days where Green would terrorize an overwhelmed Steelers secondary with 11 receptions for 224 yards as he did in 2014 or 17 catches for 250 yards as he did in the two combined 2015 regular season meetings are probably a thing of the past.
Still, even through relatively lean defensive years for the Steelers, the Bengals haven’t scored more than 21 points against Pittsburgh since September of 2009.
The blur of new speed only accentuates the Bengals’ issues in this series. The job for Andy Dalton and company only grows more challenging.
“Every time we have played them they have played us tough no matter what their defense is ranked in the league that year,” guard Clint Boling said. “There are some different pieces, but it’s a familiar game.”