The Steelers coaching staff has a stated goal that says, for the team to be as successful as they want to be, the defense needs to hold teams to 17 points per game or less. With the exception of one game this season, the Steelers have exceeded that goal. Excluding the Philadelphia Eagles, who hung 34 points on the defense, the Steelers have surrendered an average of just 14.7 points per game during the other four. Including the loss to the Eagles, the average points per game given up by the defense jumps up to only 18.6, still not too bad when considering that the unit has literally been living their “next man up” mantra since game one. Starting with perhaps the most valuable figure on defense, Cam Hayward, who hasn’t been healthy since the preseason and is expected to miss at least the next two games, the Steelers have missed or are missing the services of Bud DuPree, Ryan Shazier, Robert Golden, Sean Davis, and Senquez Golson. Their replacements, Vince Williams, Jordan Dangerfield, and Artie Burns have stepped up and performed in a more than credible fashion.
While the backups have certainly come in and done their part, it is the development of a few players over the last year, Jarvis Jones, Ross Cockrell, and Vince Williams, that has really helped to improve the defense overall. Jones is one who has noticeably stepped up his game this season. His detractors may continue to label him a bust, simply because he isn’t the sack machine he was projected to be, but he is proving to be more than that. When he has lined up to go after the quarterback, he’s been getting consistent pressure, but he is being asked to do more than that. Jones has dropped into coverage on occasion, getting his first career interception against KC, but also he has been playing a larger role in helping to stop the run. He’s looking a lot stronger at shedding blocks and at the point of attack than he has in his previous seasons. He may not have the sack numbers that were projected or desired, but make no mistake about it Jarvis Jones is a good player, similar in fact to former linebacker Clark Hagans.
In the secondary, Ross Cockrell is quickly becoming someone the coaches trust to shadow the opposition’s number one receiver. Brandon Marshall of the Jets had 114 yards and a touchdown on 8 receptions versus Cockrell. While it might look like Marshall had a big game, Cockrell held Marshall to just 2 catches in the second half. The touchdown pass that Marshall caught late in the first half, was a ball that Cockrell deflected and probably should have intercepted. Either way, Ross Cockrell figured Marshall out and shut him down in the second half, taking away Ryan Fitzpatrick’s biggest weapon. In just over a year’s time, he has turned himself from a Buffalo Bills cast off into a valuable member of the Steelers secondary
Vince Williams has been all over the field while filling in for an injured Ryan Shazier. In back to back starts against the Chiefs (10/2) and the Jets (10/9), he led the Steelers in tackles with 15 and 9 respectively, and added two sacks. His play has given the defense the luxury of not having to rush Shazier back into the lineup, which is a testament to the hard work he has put in to improving his game. His growth as a player has even led to some fans suggesting that Williams be given the starting role and moving Shazier to safety. As ridiculous as that thought is, it is an indication on how far the depth at the position has come. Not far behind Williams is Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort, two more players who have forced their way onto the roster.
The fact is, even though the Steelers have the most dangerous offense in the NFL, they will only go as far as the defense takes them. The better the defense performs, the more dangerous the offense becomes. After having just one sack over the first three games, the defense has 7 in the last two. With better pressure comes better coverage, and boy do the Steelers have the big, athletic corners for that now. In three years, the defense has transitioned from being, rightfully labeled, old and slow to young and evolving, while steadily improving at the same time. Keith Butler deserves much of the credit for this by simplifying the scheme, allowing young guys to get on the field to contribute much sooner than they would have under Dick LeBeau. By putting these young guys in positions to succeed earlier, the confidence they gain should help them to develop quicker. If this defense improves as much by the end of this season as it did by the end of last year, it will be a super bowl caliber defense, which is more than enough needed to support the Ben Roethlisberger led offense in their quest for the elusive 7th Lombardi Trophy.