Is It Too Early To Worry About the 2015 Steelers Defense?

The Pittsburgh Steelers dropped a 43-19 preseason decision to the Buffalo Bills in a game that was every bit as a bad as the score indicates. Starting a quarterback quartet that didn’t feature a player named Marino, Brady, Staubach, or Favre, the Bills completed 90% of their passes. Absent their top running back the Bills averaged 4.5 yards a carry and ripped off runs for 41, 22, and 20 yards.

These Steelers Bills preseason video highlights are not easy on the eyes, Steelers Nation:

Rarely does Mike Tomlin reveal much in post-game press conference because he pleads a need to review the tape. After the Bills blow out, Tomlin shunned his typical reticence:

Some of our young guys who pushed through this game, who are quite frankly fighting for jobs, did not execute without enough detail to be in consideration. And that’s disappointing…. Some of those guys looked like they were just walking dead. [Emphasis added.]

That’s a pretty harsh condemnation from a head coach, particularly for one that will begin making cuts in close to 48 hours. Tomlin’s tone was more than matched on social media.

Steel Curtain Rising was far from above the fray, churning out this Tweet:

  • With that said, it is only appropriate to ask, it too early to worry about the Steelers 2015 defense?

Make no mistake about it, giving up 43 points, getting gouged for double-digit yardage on almost ever drive, and only forcing one punt is unacceptable, even if the Steelers defense was missing Lawrence Timmons, Michael Mitchell, and Stephon Tuitt.

But with those criticisms firmly on the table, let’s take a step back and put the Steelers defensive failure vs. the Bills in context.

2015 Steelers Defense in Preseason

The Steelers began the 2015 off season by dismissing Dick LeBeau and promoting Keith Butler to defensive coordinator.

When LeBeau left Pittsburgh in 1996, both of his successors, Jim Haslett and Tim Lewis were not hired to implement a new system, but rather to administer the one installed by in 1992 by Bill Cowher, Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau and Marv Lewis. In contrast, under Keith Butler, the Steelers are making a shift towards Cover 2.

  • Let that sink in for a moment.

For the first time in 23 years the Pittsburgh Steelers are adopting a new defensive system. Expecting a seamless transition might be ideal, but is hardly realistic. Fair enough, but giving up 43 points suggests the transition has derailed.

  • The question is, are those 43 points given up to a no-name Bills offense characteristic of the 2015 Steelers defense?

There’s not a lot of data to go on, but prior to Sunday’s defensive debacle in Buffalo, the Steelers defense gave up 14, 23 and 24 points against the Vikings, Jaguars, and Packers. While the upward trend troubles, you can give up 20 points and still win a lot of games in the NFL.

Against the Steelers defense in preseason the Vikings quarterbacks completed 73% of their passes, the Jaguars quarterbacks 67% and the Packers quarterbacks only 59%. This is logical, considering that the sack totals of the Steelers defense jumped from 1, to 2, to 6 in those first 3 preseason contests.

On the ground, prior to the Bills debacle, the Steelers defense had been getting stingier as the preseason progressed, giving up 3 yards per carry vs. the Vikings, 3.1 vs. the Jaguars, and 2.8 vs. the Packers. Again, the trend was headed in the right direction.

  • While those tendencies offer encouraging signs about the Steelers defense, others do not.

The average yards per catch allowed by the Steelers defense is unmistakably headed in the wrong direction, with the Steelers allowing the Vikings 8.5 yards per catch, the Jaguars 10.8 yards per catch and the Packers 12.4 yards per catch. The number jumped again vs. the Bills, who averaged 13.2 yards per catch.

2015 Steelers Defense Warrants Worry But Not Panic. Yet.

Steel Curtain Rising has long argued that while preseason wins and losses mean almost nothing, the performances of individual units or individuals that lead to those results can be revealing.

For example, the preseason-run blocking difficulties of the 1998 Steelers offensive line signaled the struggles to come in the regular season.

  • And so it looks to be the case with the 2015 Steelers pass defense.

While the Steelers 2015 pass defense won’t give up 90% its passes, it does appear that this unit is very vulnerable to the deep ball. Shamarko Thomas and Mike Mitchell haven’t played much together in practice let alone the preseason, and those two men are the Steelers last line of defense against the deep pass.

This isn’t to say that the 2015 Steelers defense can’t improve as the year goes along, but evidence indicates that they’ll struggle before they swim. So no, Steelers Nation, panic is not in order, but its not too early to worry about the 2015 Steelers defense.

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