Labriola On

Labriola on this defense deserves respect, too

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Which NFL team employs the best defense?

• Based on what I have been hearing from the talking heads on cable and reading from the "analysts" on the websites that serve as extensions of the bloviators on television, the conventional wisdom would be that it's the Baltimore Ravens. It's the easy, simple answer, even if it's largely based on reputation and the recent hype generated by the Ravens' trade for a soon-to-be 34-year-old defensive end whose production has gone from 14.5 sacks in 2017 to 10.5 in 2018 to 6.5 in 2019.

• Not to let facts get in the way.

• Speaking of facts, now seems to be the appropriate time to acknowledge that I work for the Pittsburgh Steelers and wrote this for, and having people then conclude that everything coming out of my mouth or springing from my fingertips is therefore slanted in the team's favor is nothing new. Even though the list of former players and coaches who would enjoy skinning me alive and mounting my pelt on their ego wall is as long as some of those runs Tennessee's Derrick Henry ripped off during that AFC Divisional Round Game in Baltimore last January, but I digress.

• If you still haven't been able to follow the bread crumbs to arrive at the point of this piece, well, it's that I'm not completely certain the Ravens even have the best defense in the AFC North.

• In some ways, it's completely understandable why the Steelers would be overlooked in this discussion, because the franchise that is able to claim one of the most famous defensive lines in NFL history; that won Super Bowl IX on the strength of a defense that posted 52 sacks and 47 takeaways, and allowed 21 touchdowns and 11.8 points per game over the 14-game regular season and then supplemented that in the postseason by allowing O.J. Simpson, the Oakland Raiders, and the Chuck Foreman Minnesota Vikings a combined 95 yards rushing (1.7 per carry average); and that won six Super Bowls by finishing those regular seasons ranked first, fourth, third, second, fourth, and first in the NFL in defense, also is the franchise that in 2018 had a 5,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard wide receivers, and a running back with 1,470 yards from scrimmage and didn't make the playoffs because it lost four games in which its offense scored four or more touchdowns.

• But the Steelers defense turned a corner in dramatic fashion in 2019, thanks to an aggressive move on draft day to move up in the first round and get themselves the three-down linebacker they lost when Ryan Shazier sustained that spinal injury, which was supplemented by an uncharacteristic move to trade a future No. 1 pick to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick, who put some teeth into the secondary by being personally responsible for seven takeaways (five interceptions and two fumble recoveries) and two defensive touchdowns.

• An examination of defensive rankings from the 2019 regular season shows little real difference between the defenses of the Ravens and the Steelers, at least when it would come to an argument supporting Baltimore's unit as clearly the best in the NFL. Or as one of the bloviators referred to it, "the scariest."

• When it comes to total yards allowed per game, the Ravens ranked fourth and the Steelers fifth. Total yards passing per game showed the Steelers ranked third and the Ravens ranked 11th, but in fairness this category is skewed because the potency of the Baltimore offense forced opponents to play a lot of catchup, which lends itself to more passing and therefore more passing yards.

• But that same high-scoring Ravens offense also factors into the team's ranking against the run, because opponents couldn't afford to make much of an effort to establish their running attacks or stick with them because Lamar Jackson and the offense often rolled up a lot of points early to eliminate ground-and-pound as a viable strategy. In rushing yards per game, the Ravens defense ranked fifth in the NFL, while the Steelers' ranked 14th; but in average yards allowed per rush, the Steelers ranked third and the Ravens ranked 21st.

• In what arguably is the most important category – points allowed per game – the Steelers ranked tied-for-fifth (18.9), while the Ravens ranked third (17.6).

• Baltimore will enter the 2020 season with three fine cornerbacks – Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith, and Marlon Humphrey, but the Steelers' starting duo of Joe Haden (487 yards) and Steven Nelson (491 yards) finished 2019 ranked seventh and eighth among all cornerbacks in the NFL in fewest yards allowed in coverage. For the Ravens, Humphrey ranked fifth with 440 yards.

• But there were two important defensive categories in which the Steelers were significantly better than the Ravens, and those were sacks and takeaways. The Steelers led the NFL with 54 sacks and their opponents' 514 passing attempts were the third fewest in the league, while the Ravens managed 37 sacks on 544 opponents' pass attempts. And the Steelers led the NFL with 38 takeaways, which broke down to the NFL's second-most interceptions with 20 and the most fumble recoveries with 18, while the Ravens were seventh with 25 takeaways, which broke down to being tied-for-12th in interceptions with 13 and sixth in fumble recoveries with 12. The Steelers were far more effective in sacking the quarterback and taking the ball away, even though their own offense never was potent enough to force opponents into taking chances, or to play catchup, or even to believe 17 points wasn't going to be good enough to win.

• And in one final statistical category – red zone defense – the Ravens finished third in the NFL by allowing opponents to score touchdowns 47.7 percent of the time they penetrated the Baltimore 20-yard line, and the Steelers finished tied-for-sixth in red zone defense by allowing opponents to score touchdowns 50 percent of the time they penetrated the Pittsburgh 20-yard line.

• In most categories, it's a statistical wash when it comes down to the 2019 versions of the Ravens defense vs. the Steelers defense, with the two notable exceptions being sacks and takeaways. And based on the way offensive football now is being played, those two categories – plus red zone defense – are the most significant.

• To some it may seem clear the Ravens have the NFL's best defense. To me, it's not.

• It has been suggested that the addition of free agent tight end Eric Ebron will remove some of the urgency for the Steelers to use their first pick in the upcoming draft – the 49th overall – on an offensive playmaker, because when healthy and playing with a top-notch quarterback Ebron has made some dynamic contributions to the passing attack.

• The most often cited example is the 2018 season when Ebron teamed with Andrew Luck to catch 66 passes for 750 yards (11.4 average), with 13 touchdowns and 44 first downs. And Ebron already has gone public with his excitement over getting to play with Ben Roethlisberger – "I have always had this love for Big Ben."

• In an injury-free world, Ebron can be expected to pair with tight end Vance McDonald to give Roethlisberger and the Steelers a one-two receiving punch at tight end they never have had before and therefore result in a lot of sleepless nights for opposing defensive coordinators.

• As General Manager Kevin Colbert explained, "There is athleticism, there is red zone production, there is run-after-the-catch. (Ebron) really is a premier kind of receiving tight end in the league when he is healthy. It is hard to predict health, but we think that when he is healthy, he is a solid contributor and another weapon in the passing game for sure."

• Signing Ebron doesn't preclude the team from adding another offense weapon, say a wide receiver with difference-making speed, but it should allow the Steelers to look to spend their draft capital on positions other than tight end, especially during the earlier stages of the three-day draft.

• Looking at the depth chart at tight end and keeping in mind that it's typically three who are kept on the initial 53-man roster, the Steelers have McDonald and Ebron, plus second-year pro Zach Gentry, who improved steadily over the course of his rookie season and is seen as a guy who can develop into a competent NFL tight end, perhaps even a better version of Jesse James.

• And the signing of Derek Watt, while listed as a fullback, also bolsters the tight end position, because he can help with some of the blocking requirements as an H-back/move tight end.

• For this to work out in reality the way it's laid out on paper, Gentry will have to take a significant step in his development, and both McDonald and Ebron will have to remain healthy. But during a draft process that will provide the Steelers with few premium picks, and with tight end not being a particularly deep position in this upcoming draft, and with other areas of the roster to be fortified, it just might be a risk the team has to take.

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