INDIANAPOLIS – For a change, it wasn't the offense that was the big story in a game the Steelers won.
Through the first three months of the 2016 regular season, that's pretty much the way it has been. If the Steelers won, it was because of Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell, or some combination of the three. When they lost, it was the defense's fault, and those who trumpeted that opinion had some credible evidence to cite.
There was the afternoon when Carson Wentz looked like Joe Montana, and also the one when Jay Ajayi looked like Emmitt Smith. But even more than the occasional statistical disasters, it was the visual. This Steelers defense had no teeth. The unit was closing in on being last in the NFL in sacks, it was on pace for fewer than a dozen interceptions. And too often it just looked too easy for whichever opponent it happened to be.
That wasn't the case last night inside Lucas Oil Stadium, and that wasn't the case starting with the very first play of the game. After the opening kickoff went for a touchback, the Colts started at the 25-yard line. Because they opened with three wide receivers, the Steelers deployed their nickel defense. William Gay came on a blitz, and his strip/sack put the Colts in a hole that became a three-and-out.
From there, the Steelers defense put together maybe its best all-around performance of the season. When it ended, the unit had three sacks, two takeaways, and two goal-line stands in which it turned the ball over on downs both times. It's also fair to acknowledge at this time that the Colts offense was playing without Andrew Luck, who couldn't make it through the concussion protocol in enough time to be part of a Thursday night game, but I don't remember the Patriots offering any compensation when the Steelers had to play without Roethlisberger.
Anyway, the 28-7 victory was the Steelers' second straight in response to that four-game losing streak, and at 6-5 they cannot end the weekend any worse than tied for first place in the AFC North, with the 5-5 Ravens hosting the 3-6-1 Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. And what's interesting about the streak is how the defense has been playing during it.
Yes, it's a tiny sample size. And yes, it was fashioned against the Browns and the Luck-less Colts. But the defense also is growing some teeth. Maybe because some of the young guys on defense have figured it out to the degree where they can play faster, which gets them to places as the ball is arriving, or before that arrival, when what it had been was getting there and hoping to make the tackle. Playing faster gets them to the quarterback, which means more sacks and takeaways, and it also means getting Scott Tolzien on the ground for no gain when he tried a quarterback draw on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
One of the characteristics both Artie Burns and Stephon Tuitt have is the kind of professional humility that allows them to accept coaching and work on their deficiencies. Cockrell has improved steadily since arriving from Buffalo at the start of the 2015 season, and Burns has come on rapidly as a rookie. This has manifested itself in the secondary making more plays on the football, evidenced by the sharp increase recently in passes defensed.
During the four-game losing streak, the Steelers had 12 passes defensed; in these two wins, it has been 14. Better coverage gives the rush some time to get there, and that shows up in the statistics as well. Over the first nine games of the season, the Steelers had 13 sacks and 37 pressures; in these two wins it has been 11 sacks and 25 pressures.
And when all of it is mixed together – the playing faster part and the ability to make plays in the secondary part and the get pressure on the quarterback part – the unit becomes more physical. Punishing even, at least within the boundaries of what is permitted in today's football. A good secondary breaks up passes two ways: by getting hands on the football, or bodies on the bodies trying to make the catches. As for a pass rush, it can be successful without gaudy sacks stats, because it's really about making the opposing quarterback feel pressure and make hasty decisions with the ball as a result.
In the win over the Colts, the Steelers sacked Tolzien three times and pressured him 11 more times, they intercepted two passes and broke up six others. And one of the sacks was a sack/strip. They were aggressive, and they played physical. One of the team's two touchdowns in Cleveland was a defensive touchdown; against the Colts the defense stopped fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line twice and knocked T.Y. Hilton out of the game.
The Steelers still do not have the kind of defense they want, or need, but they're closer to that today than a month ago. And a month ago, it had seemed pie-in-the-sky to think they ever would be where they are today.