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Assessing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Defense

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Nov 30, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Fans cheer on the Pittsburgh Steelers defense against the New Orleans Saints during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Saints won 35-32. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Most of the predictions I have come across in the last three days have all said the same thing about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. NFL pundits say their defense is back. This resurrection to glory can be largely attributed to the Week 16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Steelers’ defense did not show up in that game like the media would have you assume. The positives can not be denied. The defense did account for six total sacks. It also held Chiefs’ running back Jamaal Charles to 29 yards on just nine carries. The defense also forced a fumble.

Holding Charles to 29 yards is impressive; however, he only had nine rushing attempts. The Chiefs as a team ran the ball a total of 14 times. For a game that ended 20-12, nine carries is a very low amount, especially for a team that averages 26.3 attempts per game. Yet defending against the run isn’t the only aspect to consider.  The Steelers’ defense didn’t perform nearly as well against the Chiefs’ passing attack.

Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith has averaged 217.7 yards per game this year. The Steelers’ defense has given up 255.2 yards per game through the air. Smith passed for 311 yards against the Steelers and avoided turnovers.

What exactly did people see in the Steelers’ defense in this game? It gave up more than it normally does through the air to a team that does not typically rely on the passing game. The Steelers’ defense is now ranked 27th in the NFL. This defense has allowed three straight 300-yard passing games. It has given up the fifth most passing touchdowns and the fifth most passing yards per attempt in the NFL.

As stated above, the Steelers’ pass defense has struggled. Not only for the last three games, but for the entire season. It should be noted that safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor have both missed significant time with injuries.

But there are two main aspects to defense. The Steelers are ranked sixth in the NFL in stopping the run; however, stats can lie. The NFL rates run defenses based on how many yards per game it gives up on the ground. A lot of times this stat is misconstrued for sub-par teams.

When teams start to fall behind, often times they lean more on the passing game while trying to catch up. This reduces the amount of plays called, which will directly affect the amount of rushing yards. The average that should be taken more into consideration is the average yards per rushing attempt.

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As stated earlier, the Steelers are ranked sixth in NFL rushing defense. The Browns are ranked dead last in that same category. Yet what should be noted is that the Steelers give up 4.4 yards per carry while the Browns allow 4.5 yards per carry. So how can one team be ranked in the near elite for rushing defense and the other dead last when each rushing attempt against both teams is virtually identical? For the math-letes out there, that is an average of 3.6 inches further per carry. Or about the size of a note card.

It seems to be that this “resurrection”that pundits are proclaiming is a little misunderstood.  For a team that gets torched through the air, has forced less third downs than other team, gives up the 23rd most yards per carry, and is tied for ninth in the NFL for most 20+ yard runs allowed; they seem to be put on a high pedestal.

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