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Labriola on the win over the Vikings

Posted Sep 17, 2017

Two weeks into the season, the defense has been a reason the Steelers are 2-0.

Through the first two weeks of this NFL season, the good news is that the Steelers defense has been carrying the offense. Through the first two weeks of this NFL season, the bad news is that the Steelers defense has been carrying the offense.

It’s a matter of perception, really, but as Bill Cowher was so fond of reminding people, “Perception is reality.” Which brings us to the inevitable conclusion, that through the first two weeks of this NFL season, the Steelers defense has been the reason why the team’s record is 2-0.

It’s 2-0 now thanks to the 26-9 victory over the Sam Bradford-less Minnesota Vikings at Heinz Field, which followed a season-opening 21-18 victory in Cleveland over the Browns, and while the quality of the offensive performance improved from the first week to the second, the defense has turned in back-to-back consistent, sound, winning performances.

Actually, there really was nothing in either of the first two games authored by the Steelers defense that was particularly outstanding, but it’s also accurate to point out the unit made the plays that were available to be made. In Cleveland, it was consistent pressure on the passer that yielded seven sacks and an interception, and against the Vikings, it was more of an overall stinginess, which translated to only 14 first downs and 237 net yards of offense.

The qualifier to all of this is the degree of difficulty posed by the opposition, particularly the lack of difficulty presented by the quarterbacks in question – a rookie in his first NFL start in the opener and then a career journeyman who walked into Heinz Field with 24 touchdown passes and 49 sacks on his resume. But that was what the Steelers faced, and they made DeShone Kizer look like a rookie in his first NFL start and after three-plus hours on the grass at Heinz Field, Keenum left the building having looked like nothing more than a career journeyman.

There can be instances where a defense gets it work done with splash plays, but against the Vikings the Steelers were more stingy than anything. Consider the following:

In 12 offensive possessions, the Vikings managed more than one first down on only three of the 12. On those 12 possessions, six ended with punts, twice they turned the ball over on downs, and once they turned the ball over with a lost fumble. The Vikings finished with more yards in punts (264) than total net yards of offense (237). And they converted only 5-of-18 (27.8 percent) on possessions downs. Maybe best of all is that through two games in 2017, the Steelers have nine sacks and nine passes defensed, and the pass rush and the ability to make plays when the ball is in the air were two categories in which the unit has been deficient in the recent past.

Following a loss in the 2016 AFC Championship Game, the Steelers knew there was more work to be done on a defense they had been in the process of re-making since so many of their stars there had gotten old over a couple of seasons time and had to be replaced. They had used five picks over the first three rounds of the last two drafts in an effort to strengthen their pass defense, and then on top of that they made a big-money free agent signing and a trade on the eve of this regular season trying to accelerate the process.

Because the process still was ongoing as this season was about to begin, the suspicion was that the defense would need more time, that it would have to be nurtured and maybe even carried through the early portion of 2017 by other units, namely the Steelers star-studded offense.

That it hasn’t worked out that way brings us back to perception, back to whether this is a time for the Steelers defense to be recognized for the advances it has made and duly credited for those, or whether what we’re watching has more to do with an underachieving offense that had better get its butt in gear, and soon.

As with so many things in real life, the truth can be found somewhere in the middle. Then again, Mike Tomlin had hinted at this back in the middle of August when he warned that the Steelers would be a team in development even into the regular season, and that the idea would be for them to be able to find ways to win games as they continued to file off the rough edges.

It just never really occurred to me that come mid-September so many of those rough edges would belong to the offense. Based on pedigree and past performance, this should end up being a temporary condition, because it’s unfathomable that an offense composed of such a talented group of five starting linemen, plus an elite quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, the best receiver in football in Antonio Brown, a dynamic physical freak in Martavis Bryant, and a running back in Le’Veon Bell who deserves to be compared to Marshall Faulk when it comes to diverse skills and impact on the game, that such a group is going to continue to muddle along as it has during this opening fortnight of the 2017 regular season.

Rather, it seems more significant to point to the Steelers defense and recognize that it can be a reason this team wins games. Because in this case, anyway, perception actually has turned out to be reality.

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