Labriola On

Labriola on win over the 49ers

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers.

What was on display on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field was what these Pittsburgh Steelers are, and if they are exactly that enough times over the course of the next 15 weekends of this NFL regular season, they are going to be a big problem for their opponents.

Game action from the Pittsburgh Steelers' home opener against the San Francisco 49ers at Heinz Field.

That's correct. What the Steelers got from their defense in the 43-18 win over the San Francisco 49ers is the kind of performance they're going to need on a consistent basis, and if it happens, this is a team that's going to contend for trophies. Yes, there is the accompanying assumption the Steelers offense is going to put together efforts comparable to the one against the 49ers on a consistent basis as well, but after everything the unit has showed since July 25 when training camp opened at Saint Vincent College that doesn't exactly require a giant leap of faith.

Let's start with a defense that allowed 409 yards of offense to the 49ers, including 335 via Colin Kaepernick's passing, which when added to the 41 percent conversion rate on third downs and the 60 percent conversion rate on fourth downs added up to one second less than 37 minutes in time of possession.

But don't get bogged down in those specific numbers or what they typically have come to mean about a defensive unit's performance, because this is not a typical Steelers defense, nor does it have a typical role to play in the overall success of the team.

The pertinent statistics for the 2015 version of a Steelers defense will fall in the categories of sacks, takeaways, red zone percentage, performance on the possessions following any of the ones in which their own offense scores. If this year's Steelers defense can develop into a good situational defense, in that it makes its plays in situations – red zone, third down, goal line – then it's going to be doing enough to complement this offense sufficiently to put the team in position to win the majority of its games.

This is counterintuitive to fans of a franchise that was led out of its dark ages by a defense that became the scourge of the NFL to such a degree it was decided to change rules to neutralize it. That's what first happened in 1977, and then when the Steelers of the mid-2000s seemed to be heading to similar heights – especially during the opening four games of 2010 during Ben Roethlisberger's suspension – the league acted again, only this time it came under the guise of a player safety initiative.

It's now six seasons since 2010, and the Steelers defense has undergone radical changes in the areas of personnel, coaching, and direction. Today it's still a unit that's evolving, as well as being a unit manned by a group of players still developing as individuals. As those processes continue, there are games to be played and won, and this season is beginning with promise.

The promise comes from an offense so far exhibiting some of the qualities shared by the units around the league that are recognized as capable of dominating games, units capable of being the reason their teams win.

That's a fair description of this Steelers offense, which has the makeup of a unit able to view the a total of 30 points per game as a nice place to start. That's not to hint this Steelers offense is a finished product, because it's far from that, but in the first two weeks of 2015 it has gained 917 yards and scored 64 points, and while accepting that it has squandered scoring opportunities it also has converted 7-of-8 in the red zone. All that without Le'Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, and Martavis Bryant, all of whom are scheduled to return at some point this season, with their first-team All-Pro running back having already returned to the fold.

With that kind of production/potential, the Steelers need a defense capable of being a complement, which is what it did so nicely against the 49ers. San Francisco made four trips into the red zone and turned only one of those into a touchdown; once it ran six straight plays in the red zone and came out of it with zero. Being a complement entails what Mike Tomlin refers to as defending every blade of grass, which was on display during an early possession when the 49ers ran 17 plays and actually had a first-and-goal at the Steelers 10-yard line before having to settle for a 47-yard field goal.

Being a proper complement also entails compiling some statistics of its own, as the defense did in posting five sacks, nine tackles for loss, and five passes defensed. Those moments, combined with the 49ers gaining as many as 15 yards on only two of their 82 offensive plays pointed to the defense being consistently combative, another key component to being a proper complement.

Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt can provide playmaking along the defensive line, while the method behind the Steelers' madness in assembling a corps of linebackers that includes recent No. 1 draft picks on Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, and Bud Dupree is starting to come into focus. The secondary still is a white-knuckle ride from start to finish, but maybe it gets better as a result of dealing with Roethlisberger and his receivers during every practice.

There are going to be days when more might be required of this defense for the Steelers to win, and the unit will have to improve to live up to that. If that improvement comes in the areas of situational football – red zone, third down, goal line – then ladies and gentlemen, your 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be fun to watch.

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