The Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive struggles, which were on display in training camp and the preseason, continued in their regular-season opener, a 28-21 loss to the New England Patriots. The final score was close but not indicative of just how poorly Pittsburgh's defense performed.
That's because, much like in 2014, the defense was bailed out by the Steelers' top-notch offense. And it's a trend that may have to continue throughout the season if Pittsburgh wants to remain the top team in the AFC North and be competitive while slogging through the toughest schedule in the league.
What happened on Thursday wasn't as bad as the Steelers' big loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 of the preseason, during which Pittsburgh's defense—from the first-stringers on down—gave up nearly 600 yards of total offense. But there were shades of that game to be seen.
|Patriots Offense vs. Steelers Defense, Week 1|
|Pass 1st Down||19|
|3rd Down Convert||7/11|
From the 361 yards allowed to the Patriots—including 281 in the air—to the Patriots offense going four-of-four in the red zone, and from the Cover 2 scheme leaving Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski unforgivably wide open on a number of occasions to on-field communication issues, the Steelers defense clearly left a lot to be desired.
Members of the Steelers defense explained what went wrong to Ralph N. Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
"There were a few times we didn't communicate or didn't have our eyes where they had to be," said safety Mike Mitchell. "We didn't get off the field, and we gave too many big plays," said linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Linebacker Jarvis Jones added, "We did a good job against the run, but we've got to get better against the pass."
Defending the pass was one of the Steelers' biggest weaknesses in 2014, and it remains a problem at present.
The scheme switch is partially to blame. Another issue is that the Steelers' defensive starters didn't get as much work together during the summer as the team would have liked, with nearly everyone dealing with nagging injuries at one point or another. Timmons had a turf toe injury, and Mitchell dealt with a hamstring injury, among others.
But there is a way to cover up the defensive deficiencies, and it's the same as last year: Lean on that prodigious offense. Though the Steelers had some drive-finishing problems on that side of the ball on Thursday, they also put up 464 yards of total offense on just nine drives, with 330 coming in the passing game. They also boasted 134 yards rushing, most of that belonging to back DeAngelo Williams.
The feat was even more impressive given that running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Martavis Bryant were not on the field, with the former serving a two-game suspension and the latter serving a four-game ban. It could have made it much easier for the Patriots to shut down league-leading Steelers receiver Antonio Brown—but it didn't. Brown recorded nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown.
There's no reason to believe that after just one game the Steelers defense cannot improve with more opportunities for starters to play together. Linebacker Ryan Shazier is optimistic. He said, per Paulk, "There are always some good things and bad things on film. We'll see what we can fix. ... When you don't make plays, you have to go back to the drawing board. We're going to be a great defense."
But considering the way Pittsburgh's defense struggled against the pass last year and how that pattern continued into Week 1, it may take a few more trips to the drawing board until things get settled. And in the interim, the only thing that will be keeping this team in games will be the offense.
Pittsburgh's defense gets a bit of a reprieve over the next two weeks, with the team hosting the San Francisco 49ers and then traveling to St. Louis to take on the Rams. But after that, a number of teams with efficient and high-powered offenses are on the docket, including the Baltimore Ravens, the San Diego Chargers and even the Kansas City Chiefs, who put up 330 yards of offense on Sunday.
The problem is that teams like Baltimore, Kansas City and even St. Louis boast some of the better defenses in the league, defenses that could find ways to curtail Pittsburgh's offensive production in ways the Patriots couldn't.
So, rather than having to rely primarily on the arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the legs of Brown, Williams and Bell, it would be better for the Steelers defense to show tangible, incremental improvement on a weekly basis this season. The alternative is being stuck as a less-than unit, as they were for much of last year.
It's one thing for Pittsburgh's offense to carry the team through a whole season when they have one of the least daunting schedules in the league, as was the case in 2014. It's another altogether for the Steelers to have to recreate that magic sans defense against opponents of higher quality.
Right now, it appears the offense is yet again the Steelers' biggest strength, and it's not even close. But the defense needs to start trending upward at some point, because the load the offense is being asked to carry is much heavier than last year.