Steelers defense lets them down again

Updated: January 17, 2018

For the second consecutive year, the NFL squad with arguably the most devastating collection of offensive skilled players in the entire league fell short of making the Super Bowl. And for the second year in a row, it was the side of the ball that was once the hallmark of the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise that let them down.

Big Ben and company racked up 545 of total yards and 42 points Sunday against Jacksonville, but ultimately it wasn’t enough. The offense didn’t help matters by committing two costly turnovers, but, despite these blunders, the defense was still afforded a few opportunities late in the game to make a stop in order to salvage the team’s season. Time and time again though, they were just unable to get off the field.

Last year at this juncture, Pittsburgh was left licking its wounds following the 36-17 beating they endured at the hands of the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. The Steelers left that contest knowing they had to be better on defense if they ever wanted to get by New England, as they proved to be weak on the back-end and had difficulty sustaining any kind of formidable pass rush up front.

The defense played admirably for a majority of the season, ultimately finishing fifth in total yards allowed. The two games it truly mattered though – against the Jags last week and their late game collapse against New England a few weeks back, their cracks were on full display. Championship defenses typically are able to bend but not break, get a big stop when it’s needed. That hasn’t been the case for the Steelers for quite sometime now, and they were never as good this year once Ryan Shazier suffered his unfortunate spinal injury.

The sad part in this for fans of the team is that, in Big Ben, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and others, the Steelers have possessed a Super Bowl caliber offense for a few seasons now. Given salary constraints and the age of some players, you never know how many chances a team will have before things get broken up.

With his talent and the success in which he began his career (3 Super Bowl appearances in his first 7 years in the NFL), it is still difficult to fathom that Big Ben hasn’t been back to the big game since 2010. He has been stuck in the same conference as Brady and Manning which hasn’t helped, but this also coincides with the identify of the team changing.

Early in Ben’s career, which was the tail-end of Bill Cowher’s reign in Pittsburgh and the beginning of Mike Tomlin’s regime, the Steelers still carried around the physical, bully reputation better than anyone. Their games against the Ravens from that era were brutal bloodbaths, and you’d be hard pressed to find more imposing defenses. I still vividly remember the size and physicality of Pittsburgh’s linebacking core when they beat my Jets in the 2010 AFC title game, as those guy’s were extremely difficult to block or contain.

With the rules of today’s NFL clearly favoring offenses, Pittsburgh had to adapt with the times and become a more explosive machine. Coupled with Big Ben growing into one of the best QB’s in the game and all the skilled players around him, it made sense for the team to become more dependent on the offense.

New England underwent the same transition from the beginning of Brady’s career to where they are in the modern NFL, but where they still excel even to this day is in terms of red-zone defense. No matter how many yards a game they get gashed for, in big spots they have an uncanny ability to play solid situational football and limit the damage.

Pittsburgh has lost most of their bullies from the previous era to age and retirement, and the great Dick Lebeau moving on certainly didn’t help matters. If they hope to capitalize on the few remaining years of Big Ben’s career and get another Super Bowl, they must continue to draft and develop on the defensive side of the ball. If not, we will look at this last decade in Pittsburgh as one of missed opportunities.



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