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Labriola on what's 'wrong' with the defense

Ready or not, here it comes:

• What is wrong with the Steelers defense? Specifically, what's wrong with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush? Fitzpatrick isn't making any big plays. I never hear Bush's name anymore. Have opponents figured them out? Will it get better? Or were those two guys just one-season wonders?

• OK, first of all, there is nothing "wrong" with the Steelers defense, and the statistics compiled and distributed by the league through the first four weeks of the season shall serve as Exhibit A:

• Those show the Steelers heading into Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles with a defense that's ranked: second in the NFL in total yards allowed per game; third in yards allowed per play; first in rushing yards per game; first in average yards per rush; 12th in passing yards per game; fifth in completion percentage allowed; fifth in interception percentage; first in sacks per pass play; third in first downs allowed per game; 19th in third-down efficiency; and fifth in points allowed per game. In addition, the Steelers are tied-for-fourth in the NFL in red zone defense.

• For those who are uninterested in wading through all of the verbiage in the above paragraph, I'll now just give you the numbers in the various statistical categories: 1; 1; 12; 5; 5; 1; 3; 19; 5. And t-4.

• There are two numbers that stick out in the glass-half-empty category: 12 and 19. Twelve is their ranking in passing yards allowed per game, and 19 is where they rank in third-down efficiency.

• Passing yards allowed per game on its own is among the most meaningless statistics when it comes to winning or losing a game. If passing yards allowed per game was a high number, but points allowed per game and red zone defense both are low numbers, then all that suggests is opponents are moving the ball between the 20-yard lines and either settling for red zone field goals or not scoring at all.

• And when a defense is shutting down the run the way the Steelers have so far – first in rushing yards per game, and first in average per rush – opponents are going to abandon that and just throw the ball in order to move it. But again, how productive can that passing be based on the Steelers' ranking for red zone defense and points allowed?

• The third-down efficiency ranking of 19th in the NFL is below the line for a team seeing itself as a contender, and it's going to be an area the Steelers must work to improve. But again the issue in the meantime is how often have opponents parlayed third-down conversions into points, and how often, if ever, did those points impact the outcome of a game.

• At this point in the season, the answer is that third-down conversions by the opponent has not led to points that impacted the outcome of a game, because the Steelers are 3-0. But that bit of good news deserves to be tempered because their season not only is in its infancy but the degree of difficult offered by their schedule to date has not been what it will become in the near future.

• A prime example of meaningless passing yards and third-down conversions occurred in the opener against the New York Giants, when the Steelers allowed a 19-play, 87-yard drive that included three third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion but ended in no points when Bud Dupree hit Giants quarterback Daniel Jones as he was attempting a second-down pass from the 4-yard line and it was intercepted by Cam Heyward at the goal line.

• Statistically, and in terms of NFL rankings, that was an awful defensive series, but in terms of the impact on the outcome of the game, it was spectacular.

• Still, the Steelers defense will need to be more efficient at getting itself off the field on third downs in the upcoming home-and-home series against the Ravens, and also in games against the high-powered offenses of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Dallas, all of which currently are ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in points per game.

• As for Fitzpatrick and Bush, it's likely both players are suffering from what people remember from their rookie seasons as opposed to an actual decline in skill. In reality, Fitzpatrick finished with five interceptions, nine passes defensed, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and to defensive touchdowns, but the memory of 2019 for some is nothing but a season-long highlights film.

• In many ways, he was uniquely productive in splash plays, because as a comparison his two defensive touchdowns in less than one full NFL season represent half the number of defensive touchdowns (four) first-ballot Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount accumulated in 14 NFL seasons, which shows how special Fitzpatrick's first season in Pittsburgh was.

• Also at work here is how opponents are responding to Fitzpatrick's presence in the Steelers secondary. With him patrolling the deep middle of the field, opponents are avoiding that area like the plague, with one statistical metric having him targeted there just once so far this season.

• Regarding the situation with Bush, the same fan base went through this not all that long ago with Ryan Shazier. Criticized for being too light throughout his rookie season after being a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Shazier appeared in nine games and finished with 36 tackles and one pass defensed.

• In 2015, Shazier played in 12 of the 16 regular season games, and finished with 87 tackles; he recorded his first NFL interception; and he also had four passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Then it was in the 2015 postseason when Shazier convinced the masses he was a special player largely on the strength of forcing and recovering a fumble when the Steelers absolutely had to have a takeaway in an improbable comeback win in Cincinnati against the Bengals in the Wild Card Round.

• In 2016, his third NFL season, Shazier emerged as a Pro Bowl caliber player and the prototype of the new wave of inside linebackers who quickly had become a must-have for every team. Shazier finished that season with 87 tackles, three more interceptions, nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. In December of the following year, Shazier sustained the injury to his spine that ended his career.

• Shazier now is referred to with reverence, and rightfully so, among Steelers fans, but it's also noteworthy that he never played more than 74 percent of the defensive snaps in any of his NFL seasons.

• Bush is three games into his second NFL season, and he has been more productive to this point in his career than Shazier was at a comparable stage of his. Bush played in all 16 games of his rookie season of 2019, finished with 109 tackles, two interceptions, four passes defensed, and four fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

• After playing 889 defensive snaps (82 percent) as a rookie, Bush has played every snap through the first three games of 2020. He's second on the team in tackles, he shared a sack with Bud Dupree, and he has three passes defensed, one of which came in the end zone to save a touchdown.

• What people should realize is that Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush are two of the up-and-coming dynamic defensive playmakers in the NFL. There is nothing "wrong" with them, and this will be revealed over time as the season unfolds and they continue to develop.

BELICHICK'S BACKUPS
• Bill Belichick gets a lot of credit for a lot of things pertaining to his job as the czar of the on-field product presented annually by the New England Patriots, but I would have a lot of difficulty understanding how his backup quarterbacks in 2020 – Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham – could be perceived as better than the Steelers backup quarterbacks in 2019 – Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

• Hoyer may have 13 seasons in the NFL, but at the end of the first half last Monday night, he pulled a "Kent Graham," which is to say he prevented his team from attempting a makeable field goal because he took a sack in a situation where his team was out of timeouts and taking a sack was the only thing he COULD NOT AFFORD TO DO.

• Hodges never pulled a bonehead move like that in the eight games (six starts) in which he appeared last season as an undrafted rookie. And after pulling that "Kent Graham," Hoyer was yanked from the game with a rating of 59.4. Hodges' rating for 2019 came in at 71.4.

• Stidham played the second half and completed 38.5 percent with one touchdown, two interceptions, and a rating of 39.4. Anyone who believes he looked better than Rudolph in 2019 just doesn't like Rudolph.

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