Going into their match up with Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills, Steelers Nation is wondering if the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is either coming into its own, or it’s just on a hot-streak.
So, which is it? With three rookies now starting and playing at a high-for-rookies level, Keith Butler‘s crew has allowed just 30 points in the last three games (23 if you don’t count garbage time last week against the Giants).
And, what about all of those fourth down stops–including two fourth and goals stands against the Colts on Thanksgiving night and three fourth down stymies last week against Eli Manning and Co.?
- I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty darn good about the Steelers 2016 defense these days (not to mention, confident).
But, it is real or it just a byproduct of facing three compromised offenses over the past three weeks? (Even the Giants offense isn’t exactly a juggernaut these days, despite the presence of a franchise quarterback and an all-world receiver.)
If the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers defense has arrived, I think we’ll find out this week against Buffalo. Why do I say that? Pittsburgh is going back to the place where, as head coach Mike Tomlin put it following the all-important next-to-last preseason game of 2015 in-which Bills coach Rex Ryan kept the peddle to the mettle most of the afternoon, many of his youngsters were walking dead and yielded 542 total yards in a 43-19 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
- So, why is that preseason game relevant now?
After all, a lot of the zombies in question from that defense, such as cornerback Antwon Blake, aren’t with the Steelers any longer. Also, one of Mike Tomlin’s current starting corners–Ross Cockrell–was on Buffalo’s roster at that point, just days away from being cut and picked up by Pittsburgh.
It has a lot to to do with now. For starters, the Bills might be dead-last in passing, behind quarterback Tyrod Taylor (just 181.5 yards per game), but they’re number one in rushing, averaging a shade under 162 yards a week.
- Running back LeSean (Shady) McCoy, a Pitt Panther football product, leads the way with 949 rushing yards, but Taylor (469 yards) is certainly a threat when using his legs as a weapon.
And, let’s not forget about Charles Clay, a tight end who isn’t exactly on the same level of a Rob Gronkowski (or even Travis Kelce), but who has given the Steelers trouble in the past, when he was a member of the Dolphins.
Speaking of the Dolphins, this Sunday’s game is kind of similar to Pittsburgh’s October 16 visit to Miami, which turned out to be a 30-15 loss. In that game, not only was defensive end Cameron Heyward out with a pulled hamstring, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played the majority of the day with a torn meniscus.
- It was a horrible day for the Steelers defense, which yielded 222 rushing yards–including 204 by running back Jay Ajayi.
- Many players–including youngster and first round pick Artie Burns–screwed up assignments in the running game.
But, after winning three games in a row, Pittsburgh’s defense is in a different place than it was, some seven weeks ago. For one thing, Artie Burns has earned the trust of the coaching staff enough to be a starting corner. The result: nine passes defensed and two interceptions, not to mention better attention to detail in the run department.
- And, now, second round pick Sean Davis is the starting free safety in place of Robert Golden.
While third round pick defensive lineman Javon Hargrave is probably out this week with a concussion, the fact is, this Steelers defense appears to be in a different place than it was, even a few weeks ago, when the Cowboys registered 422 yards in a 35-30 loss at Heinz Field on November 13.
Will the end-result be similar to the past three weeks or to the Dallas game three weeks ago, or even the Buffalo preseason match-up of 2015? After all, the Eagles have had Pittsburgh’s number in the preseason in recent years (remember when Troy Polamalu had an emotional outburst during a game in the summer of 2014?) and kept that ball rolling in a 34-3 regular season beat-down in Week 3 of this current regular season.
The Bills seem to be built in a similar fashion to the Eagles, Dolphins and Cowboys, and despite Buffalo’s rather modest 6-6 record, Rex Ryan’s Bills certainly promise to put the Steelers defense to the test this Sunday.
- Will Keith Butler’s crew ace this exam?
Steelers Nation will have its answer soon. If it does, the Steelers might be on their way to an epic playoff run.