Though offensive standouts such as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and John Stallworth have found their way to the Hall of Fame and legendary Steelers status, it was the Steel Curtain defense that was the foundation for Pittsburgh's emergence as a multi-time Super Bowl champion, perennial contender and one of the NFL's storied franchises in the 1970s.
Thus, as the return of Ben Roethlisberger commands the headlines and quandaries abound regarding the reemergence of James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster following sub-par seasons, it is once more the Steelers defense – rife with burgeoning talent – that kept Pittsburgh in the playoff hunt in 2019 and has it poised to do so once again this upcoming campaign.
Names such as T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush are becoming well-known, but it is the collective talent that could lead the Steelers back to the NFL hierarchy. And it is a collection of a first-round talent currently unprecedented in the NFL.
Among the Steelers' projected starters, there are seven first-round draft picks – which would be tops in the NFL.
Bush (Steelers, 2019, No. 10 overall pick), Fitzpatrick (Dolphins, 2018, No. 11), Watt (Steelers, 2017, No. 30), Bud Dupree (Steelers, 2015, No. 22), Terrell Edmunds (Steelers, 2018, No. 28), Joe Haden (Browns, 2010, No. 7) and Cameron Heyward (Steelers, 2011, No. 31) are all returning starters from a defense that led the NFL in sacks (54) and takeaways (38) in 2019.
And this Steel seven of first-round picks is very much the chief reason behind Pittsburgh's status as an AFC North contender. The Steelers relinquished just 18.9 points per game last season (fifth in the NFL) and 304.1 yards (fifth), the first-round-laden defense keeping Pittsburgh in just about every game following a blowout loss to the Patriots to open the season. That was a 33-3 defeat to New England. The Steelers never allowed more than 28 points in a game thereafter.
(per NFL Research)
PPG Allowed 18.9 T-5th
Total YPG Allowed 304.1 5th
Takeaways/Game 2.4 1st
Sacks/Game 3.4 1st
Comp Pct. Allowed 61.1 6th
Pass YPG Allowed 194.6 3rd
Interceptions 20 2nd
Opp. Passer Rating 79.7 4th
Fitzpatrick, Heyward, Haden and Watt were each Pro Bowl picks.
An All-Pro with 14.5 sacks, an NFL-high eight forced fumbles and eight passes defended, Watt was an All-Pro who finished third in AP Defensive Player of the Year voting as he took a large step in establishing himself as one of the finest defensive players in the league. Having also hauled in a pair of interceptions, the three-season pro became just the third player since 2000 – following Jason Taylor (2006) and Terrell Suggs (2011) – with 10 or more sacks, seven or more forced fumbles and two or more interceptions in a season, according to NFL Research.
Almost immediately after he was acquired via trade from the Dolphins, Fitzpatrick proved to be a perfect fit for Pittsburgh. Filling up the stat line with five interceptions, three fumble recoveries and 69 tackles, Fitzpatrick has given the Steelers a playmaker and a presence at safety not glimpsed since Troy Polamalu.
Somewhat quietly, Heyward has been an All-Pro in two of the last three seasons and gone to three straight Pro Bowls. Last season, he racked up nine sacks along with a career-best 83 tackles.
Following career-highs of 11.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, 16 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles, Dupree was franchise tagged by Pittsburgh. It was a season in which he truly announced his presence as a premier player and lived up to his first-round status.
And then there's Bush, the last first-rounder of the bunch. He led all rookies in tackles and with six takeaways (four fumble recoveries and two interceptions), making noise in the preseason and never quieting through his freshman campaign. Bush's 109 tackles also led the way for the Steelers and that might well become a standard.
Haden, who matched Fitzpatrick with a team-high five interceptions, was a Pro Bowl selection for the third time, but the first time with Pittsburgh.
Plenty of stats and plenty of talent marked what may have been a pivotal season for the Pittsburgh defense.
Pittsburgh actually has eight first-round draft picks on its defense – most in the NFL, per NFL Research – with defensive tackle Tyson Alualu coming off the bench. Alualu was also a big contributor last season, tallying five starts and 41 tackles, with four for a loss.
A season ago, the Steel seven-led defense kept Pittsburgh in the playoff hunt. The question going forward will be whether the Steelers' burgeoning defense can lead them back to the postseason and amid the AFC heavyweights that they were so long a part of.