The script for the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers was supposed to be simple: The Steelers offense would soar while the Steelers defense struggled.
- The Steelers stuck to that script in the season opening loss to New England.
The Steelers offense didn’t soar but it was only few mistakes and mental errors away going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady. The defense held up its end of the bargain, it struggled with no qualifiers necessary. Pittsburgh rebounded in week 2 at Heinz Field, as the Steelers defeated the San Francisco 49ers 43-18.
While the Steelers offensive explosion will generate most of the headlines and highlights, the real headline of the Steelers win over the 49ers should read, “Steelers defense dominates 49ers.”
Steelers Offense Steals the Show vs. 49ers. Literally.
Let’s establish one fact.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers offense deserves the accolades it earned for its performance over the 49ers.
Of course the Steelers weren’t playing the 2000 Ravens, the 86 Bears, or either incarnation of the Dallas Doomsday Defense that Terry Bradshaw and company grappled with in Super Bowl X and Super Bowl XIII. But a tweet for Alex Kozora helps puts things into perspective:
The Steelers scored 40+ points despite running just 52 plays today. That's a franchise first. #Steelers
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) September 20, 2015
That’s by far not the only set of numbers that illustrate how lethal the Steelers offensive effort was vs. the 49ers today. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 369 yards and only saw 6 of his passes hit the ground. Antonio Brown caught 195 yards worth of those passes even when the 49ers knew the ball was coming his way.
Wearing Number 88, Darrius Heyward-Bey made a very Lynn Swann like catch, while Markus Wheaton only made two catches, but as his trade mark, he made both of them count. And for the second straight week, DeAngelo Williams made Steelers Nation forget the team was missing someone named Le’Veon Bell.
If the Steelers win over the 49ers is in anyway indicative things to come in 2015, then one can only imagine what this offense will do when it is fully armed an operational with Bell and Martavis Bryant in the lineup.
Steelers Defense Dominates 49ers
The Steelers offensive explosion was fun to watch. It undoubtedly made a lot of fantasy owners happy. But Steelers Nation should not allow such fireworks to overshadow the most important development to come out of the Steelers victory over the 49ers:
- The near dominating performance of the Steelers defense.
It is a shame that the saber metrics number crunching types have never bothered to find a way to give defense its due in fantasy football, because without it, fantasy football so badly distorts what really matters in football.
Fortuantely, Pittsburgh-based AP writer Will Graves does appreciate what real football is all about, even when you reduce it to mere numbers:
The 49ers had drives of 17, 18 and 15 plays (48 total) netted 3 pts. Steelers 6 TD drives: 33 plays total.
— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) September 20, 2015
IT says here that scoring touchdowns is always a good thing. But back in 2002 the Steelers learned a difficult lesson during the days of Tommy Maddox:
- It does little good to have a quick-strike offense if your defense fails to keep the other team out of the end zone.
That weak link of the 2002 Steelers defense was decidedly its secondary. Bill Belinick saw it, sent out 4 and 5 wide receiver formations, didn’t run once in the second half and taught the Steelers to dread the spread. The 2015 San Francisco 49ers offense isn’t set up the same way, but the secondary is the weakest spot on the 2015 Steelers depth chart.
As Will Graves points out, the San Francisco 49ers might have won the time of possession battle, but defense won the war.
- Holding any offense in the NFL to 3 points on 3 Red Zone possessions is impressive.
What is more impressive, is the way in which Keith Butler’s defense went about doing it. They were physical, athletic and aggressive. The Steelers secondary might not be strength of the team, but the Steelers defeat of the 49ers shows that you can make up for deficiencies in the secondary with strong play up front. Consider that:
- Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, Arthur Moats and Stephon Tuitt all recorded or shared sacks
- Six Steelers defenders recorded sacks behind the line of scrimmage, including cornerback Antwon Blake and William Gay
- The Steelers defense held Carlos Hyde to 43 yards, one week after he romped for 168 vs. Minnesota
And while Colin Kaepernick’s 51 yards on 8 carries looks pretty on the stat sheet, he never came close to breaking free through the Steelers secondary.
Keeping the Steelers Defensive Performance vs. the 49ers in Perspective
Just as the San Francisco 49ers defense isn’t a walking reincarnation of the 86 Bears, this edition of the 49ers offense isn’t he 49er offenses led by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice let alone those of Steve Young and Terrell Owens.
Perhaps Mike Tomlin put it best when asked to assess his defense:
We weren’t perfect. We gave up some big plays, particularly in the second half, but we will take the win.
The Steelers defense did give up two touchdown, and although one of them was in the Red Zone, another came on a 75 yard pass to Torrey Smith. This type of big play is not the thing the Steelers can afford to give up against a greater opponent.
But even a blemish such as that can’t alter the reality of the Steelers win over the 49ers: The Steelers defense turned in a far better performance than any of the pundits thought them capable of.
And that is far more encouraging than all of the offensive fireworks.