TAMPA, Fla. – It still can get better, and in fact it's going to have to be better if this season is going to have a chance to come close to satisfying the team's fan base, but what the Steelers defense presented to a Monday Night Football audience and the paying customers at Raymond James Stadium is the unit's new reality.
Forget yards allowed – rushing and/or passing – because stressing over that number is wasted energy. Same goes for first downs and time of possession. What's more significant are takeaways, specifically in the manner those contribute to the game's turnover ratio; red zone performance, as it pertains to forcing the opponent to settle for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns; sacks, with the hope that at least a few of them are not accompanied by the seemingly inevitable flag for roughing the passer; passes defensed, which indicate the ability to force the opposing quarterback to do more than play pitch-and-catch with his receivers; and third down conversion percentage, which reveals the defense's ability to get itself off the field before more damage can be inflicted.
Based on this contemporary scorecard, the Steelers defense contributed enough to help the team earn its first victory of 2018 – a 30-27 closer-than-it-needed-to-be TKO of the previously unbeaten Buccaneers.
With the outcome of the game now known, let's allow ourselves a look at the pertinent statistics that permitted the defense to contribute to a victory instead of being blamed for a loss:
Four takeaways, which led to a plus-3 in turnover ratio, with one of the takeaways leading directly to points when Bud Dupree returned his interception for a touchdown, the Steelers' first one of those since Will Gay did it to the Bengals on Dec, 13, 2015. Grade in the takeaway/turnover ratio category: A.
The Steelers red zone defense limited Tampa Bay to two touchdowns in five trips inside their 20-yard line. The Buccaneers settled for field goals on two occasions, and the Steelers ended the other of Tampa Bay's red zone possessions with a takeaway, that being Mike Hilton's interception at the 6-yard line. Grade in the red zone category: Bumped up from a B to an A- as a result of Hilton's interception.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, or FitzMagic as the trademark identifies him, posted a 400-yard passing game against the Steelers, his third straight in 2018, and the first two had staked the Buccaneers to an improbable 2-0 start to their regular season. But the Steelers sacked him three times and were credited with another 13 pressures. Grade on the pass rush: B- because of the two roughing the passer penalties.
Last weekend in hosting the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers defense allowed 326 yards passing on 28 attempts by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, 23 of which were completed, and the unit finished with one pass defensed. Clearly, pitch-and-catch all afternoon. But against the Buccaneers, Fitzpatrick managed 411 yards on 30 completions that came on 50 attempts, and the Steelers defense posted 10 passes defensed, including those three interceptions. Joe Haden led the team with three, and Jon Bostic contributed two. In this game, the Steelers back end was competitive and productive in defending the pass, and there didn't seem to be many, if any, instances of receivers just running free through the secondary. Grade: B overall for the pass defense, because even though it allowed Fitzpatrick to go over 400 yards (411) and throw for three touchdowns, it displayed some production of its own with 10 passes defensed, including three interceptions.
Third-down conversion percentage had been one of the defense's relative strengths during the first two games of the season, and that didn't change much here on Monday night. Coming into this game, the Steelers were tied for fourth in the NFL in allowing a 30.4 percent conversion rate and the Buccaneers bettered that slightly by going 3-for-9 (33.3 percent). The disappointing aspect here was that Tampa Bay converted 40 percent in the second half while mounting a comeback from a 30-10 halftime deficit. Grade for third down conversion percentage allowed: C, because this game represented a slight step backward, and the Buccaneers also were 1-for-1 on fourth down.
The Tampa Bay offense that reported for work on Monday ranked first in the NFL in four different categories and second in two others, including points scored per game, where they trailed only Kansas City. And since the Steelers had just come off a game against the Chiefs, what their defense showed against the Buccaneers represented real progress in a number of areas.
"I thought they played hard, and when you play hard you create opportunities for yourself," said Coach Mike Tomlin about his defense. "I still thought we could be better down the field on some instances, guys have got to make those one-on-one plays, those 50-50 plays. We didn't make enough of them, they made too many, and I just thought it didn't reflect the overall performance when you're giving up chunks like that. We'll keep working in that area, we'll keep working and playing guys until someone shows themselves, you know, in terms of being solid in that area."
The next bit of work to be done looks to be sorting through the 11 defensive backs currently on the 53-man roster and figuring out which combinations of personnel can be most effective and efficient in eliminating those chunk-plays. Mike Hilton sustained what was reported to be a hyperextended elbow and so his status for the immediate future is in doubt, and Tomlin went to a modified rotation system at the cornerback spot opposite Haden by splitting time between Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns.
Burns has the higher pedigree as a former No. 1 pick, but he has yet to develop the short memory that all the top players at his position possess. If he gets beat or otherwise gives up a big play, Burns is prone to going into a funk, and that leaves him vulnerable to getting beaten on subsequent plays. Sensabaugh so far has been unable to establish himself as a full-time starter to this point in his career, but he has shown himself to be a valuable complementary-type fill-in player.
There are other areas of the defense that need work, and the whole unit remains far from a finished product, but the good news today is the Steelers will get to do it this week in the glow of a 30-27 victory that never would've happened without its contributions.