Pressure is making a difference

Yes, it's only two games. But regardless, the number says a lot.

Through two games in 2016, the Steelers had the 22nd ranked defense in the NFL. While they were second against the run at the time, they were 31st against the pass.

Through two games in 2017, the story is much different. The Steelers have the third ranked defense in the NFL through Sunday's games, with the pass defense a far cry from what it was, ranked third in the AFC and fifth overall in the NFL.

And you can thank pressure for that. Not the players feeling pressure to improve that ranking, but instead them relentlessly applying pressure.

"I feel like we are doing a really good job of getting pressure on the quarterback," said Ryan Shazier. "Sometimes we don't get the sack, but we cause him to throw the ball faster than he wants, throw incomplete passes, and be in longer downs and distances than they want to. We can do better. Sometimes we still have to do some one-on-one battles, but I think we are doing a better job, especially compared to this time last year."

Through two games last year the Steelers had a grand total of one sack. This year, that number currently stands at nine. But the players aren't satisfied.  

"We can get better," said Cameron Heyward. "I thought we played decent. There are still things we can accomplish on the field. Whether it's not giving up a big run, getting a little more pressure and finishing plays, better tackling. We just have to stress that to ourselves if we want to keep improving.

"I am not going to say we are getting all of the sacks. We can accomplish more, we can still get more. I thought Bud (Dupree) had a very good game (against the Vikings), I thought (Anthony) Chickillo and T.J. (Watt) had good games. We got some pressure up the middle. We have to continue to do that. We are just a second off, a half a second off. If we can improve those aspects, continue to just keep coming home and trying to see if we can explore different options to get to the quarterback, I think we will have some success."

The success that they are having in the pass rush is a combination of things, from the scheme to defenders winning their one-on-ones.

"When you have guys like Cam, Bud, Chickillo, and (Javon) Hargrave out there winning their one-on-ones, when you have somebody not getting double-teamed, that is always better for us," said Shazier. "But when the coaches call up a great game plan, a great play to get Mike Hilton off the edge and he causes pressure on the quarterback, it's good for us also."

Making a difference: One player who has made a big impact on the defense early on is Chickillo. He started against the Browns when Bud Dupree was inactive with a shoulder injury, and responded with two sacks. He stepped in against the Vikings when Watt left the game with a groin injury, and finished with four tackles and a quarterback hurry.

"I think Chick became a better pass rusher, whether it's just working on his craft," said Heyward. "He got stronger in the weight room. They have a good leader in William Gay that teaches them a lot. They have a good coach in Joey Porter that stresses how to be a good outside linebacker. It wasn't easy for Chick because he was a defensive lineman at first, it took a little time. I thought he made the transition smoothly."

Shazier said he noticed a change in Chickillo when he arrived at Saint Vincent College for training camp this year, and now it's showing on the field.

"I knew he was going to come in and give us everything he had," said Shazier. "When he came into camp he was in better shape, his body looked better. Every single day he was working his tail off, getting sacks in practice going against one of the best offensive lines and giving everything he has. I knew once the season came he was going to be able to do the same thing versus anybody else.

"His body looks a lot better, he feels faster. His get off is looking good. His understanding of our defense is better. He has more experience and understands what he needs to do for this team and is doing a good job of it."

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