The Verdict: It's Not The Defense

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The Verdict:  It's Not The Defense


I keep hearing that the defense is the primary culprit in the Steelers' two losses.  The claim is that the defense isn't playing as well as it should or could, and isn't making the plays it needs to make. 

Not so, says I. 

Granted, the defense faced mediocre offenses in the first two games, and a potentially powerful yet still inconsistent Bengals offense in the third game.  So maybe the defensive performance looks better on paper than in reality. 

Yet, the Steelers defense has steadily improved, and is still in the top ten in the NFL.  My thinking is that the defense played so very well last season that now we are all spoiled. 

In 2008, the Steelers defense was about 0.4 yards per game rushing away from being the best defense in NFL history.  That's 6.4 yards for the entire season, or basically two rushes stopped for no gain. 

It is unrealistic to expect the Steelers defense to perform at that level every game indefinitely.  The offense must step up its play if the Steelers expect to contend for another Super Bowl championship. 

Not convinced?  Well, then, for a few moments, let me be the Steeler Nation version of NFL.com writer/analyst Pat Kirwan, and throw some numbers at you to prove the point:

2009 Defense

Net Yds Allowed
Opponent Pass Rush Total # Plays Yds/play TOP
-------- ---- ---- ----- ------- -------- -----

Tennessee 234 86 320 61 5.2 23:49
Chicago 231 44 275 57 4.8 29:34
Cincinnati 173 100 273 58 4.7 25:18


2009 Offense

Net Yds
Opponent Pass Rush Total # Plays Yds/play TOP
-------- ---- ---- ----- ------- -------- -----

Tennessee 321 36 357 70 5.1 36:11
Chicago 203 105 308 59 5.2 30:26
Cincinnati 271 102 373 60 6.2 34:32


The same numbers per game for the 2008 regular season:

2008 Defense

Net Yds Allowed
Pass Rush Total # Plays Yds/play TOP
---- ---- ----- ------- -------- -----

Avg./game 156.9 80.3 237.2 61 3.9 28:41


2008 Offense

Net Yds
Pass Rush Total # Plays Yds/play TOP
---- ---- ----- ------- -------- -----

Avg./game 206.3 105.6 311.9 63 4.9 31:41

 

So, we see that it appears that the offense is performing better than last year, but the defense is performing worse.  This is misleading, I think, because last season's schedule was significantly more difficult than this season's. 
   
Scoring per game tells a different story:

                 Offense        Defense
(Pts scored) (Pts Allowed)
------------ -------------
2008 21.7 13.9
2009 15.7 16.6

 

All of these numbers tell me that this year, while the defense is performing worse than last season's defense (duh!), the defense is stepping up its game.  As the opponents' offense has improved, the Steelers defense has improved. 

The Steelers' offense, however, looks inconsistent.  As the opponents' defense has declined, the Steelers' offense hasn't improved proportionately.  The offense is running fewer plays, although the yards per play is increasing, but the decrease in offensive points scored is greater than the increase in defensive points allowed. 

This tells me that, for whatever reason, the Steelers' offense is less efficient, and therefore less effective, than it needs to be.  The offense is moving the ball all over, spinning its wheels, getting nowhere fast, but missing opportunities to score (especially touchdowns). 

What is causing this?  Some possibilities:

  -- Play-calling and offensive sets in critical situations, especially third-down and
     short yardage situations, is still too predictable.  This gives the opposing defense
     fewer possibilities to account for, thus allowing the defense to read and react
     more quickly and have a higher probability of stopping Steelers drives. 
 
  -- The offense is taking bigger risks, going for bigger chunks of yards instead of
     concentrating on lower-risk, better ball-control tactics when prudent to do so. 
    
  -- Lack of killer instinct.  In their last two games, the offense blasted off like
     a rocket and quickly took control of the game, only to go on vacation in the
     second half.  This is the Bill Cowher Syndrome:  Get a lead, then play not to lose
     instead of going for the kill.  In the end, it only gives the opponents a better
     chance of catching up. 
 
  -- And somebody, anybody, PLEASE, tell Limas Sweed that the pointed, elongated,
     rapidly rotating dark brown object that traverses the air with a ballistic trajectory
     in his direction a few times a game is called a "Football", named after the game
     that he is supposedly getting paid to play, and that he is supposed to CATCH THE FOOTBALL and not REJECT THE FOOTBALL.

On the bright side, however, the running game seems to be improving.  It looks like Bruce Arians is FINALLY calling a lot more of the running plays that have been working consistently (off-tackle, wide and quick-developing plays), and is calling a lot less of the running plays that have never worked in his offense (anything up the middle).

So, Steeler Nation, don't panic just yet.  The defense could be better, should be better, and will be better (especially when Troy returns) as the season progresses.  And don't be too quick to criticize, because

                                          It's Not The Defense

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