5 for Friday: Defense absolutely can still win games

You can't win in today's NFL with defense. 

At least that's what some people say.

Thing is, they're not exactly correct about that. The Steelers have already won two games this season – against two good teams – specifically because of their defense.

Even more specifically, they've beaten Cleveland and Baltimore this season largely because of the exploits of T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.

Certainly there have been others involved in those victories. Watt and Highsmith haven't done it alone. But they set the tone. And in the cases of those wins over the Browns and Ravens, it was Watt and Highsmith who closed those out.

"We want to set the tone. We don't want to wait around for anyone else to make plays," Steelers outside linebackers coach Denzel Martin said. "We want to be the first guys to make plays. We want to be hitting out there. That's a part of our plan. And then those guys are self-starters, the entire room. They come out and they attack. We're always in attack mode no matter what, if it's in the run game or the pass game. That creates splash plays for us."

The Steelers have long been known for their outside linebacker play. Watt and Highsmith are beginning to cement themselves as a duo that belongs being mentioned among the other great ones. And the backups in Markus Golden and Nick Herbig aren't bad, either.

In fact, in the Steelers' first five games, the outside linebackers have produced 12 sacks, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 11 tackles for a loss and five pass defenses.

That puts the outside linebackers – just the outside linebackers – on pace for about 41 sacks this season. The Steelers had 40 sacks, nine forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in 2022 – as a team.

The amazing thing about what the outside linebackers have done thus far this season is that they've posted those numbers despite having just one double-digit lead this season – that coming in Week 3 at Las Vegas.

Imagine what this group could do if they could more consistently just pin their ears back and rush the passer.

Watt's a star. He's currently on pace to record 27 sacks this season, which would obliterate his own NFL single-season record of 22.5 set in 2021.

But Highsmith also is showing his 2022 season was no fluke. According to NextGen stats, he was credited with 11 quarterback pressures in last week's 17-10 win over the Ravens. That is the most by any player in the league this season.

Watt and Highsmith have done this despite regularly being double-teamed.

"Working with a guy like T.J., you see a tackle-plus every week," Martin said. "Now it's just getting Alex used to it. Because there's a way to beat the tackle plus and the little things that are coming and it's through film study. You know who's coming. Sometimes teams have good plans. We just have to work through it. You always have to beat two. That's how we feel about it."

• Tight end Rodney Williams had a good training camp for the Steelers, showing up and doing something noteworthy.

But with Pat Freiermuth, rookie Darnell Washington and Connor Heyward on the roster – let alone Zach Gentry, who wound up being released – it was going to be tough for Williams to make the roster.

But the former Tennessee-Martin star became a favorite of Steelers tight end coach Alfredo Roberts.

In the 17-10 win over the Ravens, Steelers fans who hadn't seen Williams at training camp got a glimpse why Roberts liked Williams so much.

Brought up from the practice squad with Freiermuth dealing with a hamstring injury, Williams played just four offensive snaps and seven on special teams.

But he showed up. Williams very nearly recovered a blocked punt by Miles Killebrew in the end zone for a touchdown.

Then, after Gunner Olszewski fumbled on a punt later in the game, it was Williams who tracked down Kevon Seymour to make sure he went out of bounds at the Pittsburgh 5.

That wound up being important when Joey Porter Jr. intercepted Lamar Jackson in the end zone to keep the score at 10-8 with 4:10 remaining in the game.

"I always kid my room that Hot Rod is my favorite," Roberts said. "When I thought he scored the touchdown, I got a little warm behind my eyes. I thought he scored. He had an opportunity. Coach (Mike Tomlin) challenges all of these guys that when you get an opportunity to play up, earn how you see yourself. Earn your spot. I want him to be a repeat player and show up every week for us. I think he can add some things offensively. He's an athletic, fast, skill guy. He has shown throughout camp that he's earned the right to be on the field."

And when he got on the field – even for just 11 snaps – he made something happen, even if it wasn't necessarily doing tight end things.

"That's part of it, playing without the football, doing those other things," Roberts said. "Some would call it a dirty job and being at the right place at the right time. Those are those two plays. He played throughout the down, he's at the right place at the right time and good things happen."

• In the four games he played without Diontae Johnson on the field, George Pickens got the No. 1 receiver treatment – both by the Steelers and opposing defenses.

The Steelers and Pickens will be better off in the long run for it.

Pickens got 33 targets catching 17 passes for 357 yards and two touchdowns in those games despite being double teamed pretty consistently.

With Johnson back, opponents will have to pick their poison. Do they double Johnson, who is one of the best route runners in the NFL, or do they double Pickens, who is emerging as one of the game's best deep threats?

"He's had to fight through and see coverages, see how teams are going to play him and still go out and make plays," wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson said of Pickens. "The great receivers in this league, historically and playing in the league right now, every person in the building knows that person is going to get the ball. Can you still go make the play? He's been tested with that and he's made plays. Obviously, having (Johnson) back will help him and us out tremendously.

"We've got two legit wideouts. They want to double-team George? We've got a legit wideout on the other side that's got a history in this league that can go make plays and win one-on-ones. Diontae is one of the best route runners in the National Football League. Having him on the other side and having two legit wideouts, if they want to double Diontae, George will win. We've got some answers if teams want to do things. I'm excited to have Diontae back, to have my room at full strength. I'm ready to go with it."

• By this time, even casual fans have heard of Pro Football Focus, a football analytics company owned, at least in part, by NFL analyst Chris Collinsworth.

Collinsworth, who handles color commentary on NBC's Sunday Night Football, has even gotten the web site's "player grades" incorporated into the broadcast. A player's Pro Football Focus grade is included when each respective team's starting lineup is shown.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Thing is, however, the grades aren't worth the bandwidth they used being published.

There are roughly 1,500 players who compete each week in the NFL, give or take a few players based on bye weeks.

Last weekend's top-rated player according to Pro Football Focus' grades? Baltimore's Lamar Jackson at 94.6.

Now, this is not in any way meant to demean or be critical of Jackson. But did anyone watching the Steelers' 17-10 win over the Ravens think Jackson was the best player in the league last week?

The bottom line is that the grades that web site posts each week are fun to look at. But don't take them as gospel.

For just stepping onto the field, players get a grade of 60.0. For example, Minkah Fitzpatrick has played five snaps of offense when the Steelers are taking a knee. He has a grade of 60. His grade on defense, where he's played 327 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus is 62.8.

Enough said.

• The Ravens play the Titans in London Sunday. The Browns host the 49ers, and the Bengals host the Seahawks.

None are particularly easy matchups.

Given the current state of the AFC North – where the Steelers go into the bye week in first place – it's not a bad week for an early-season reset.

The coaching staff can take a look at everything the Steelers have done thus far, how they've done it and who they have done it with and adjust accordingly.

Tomlin has made a habit – especially in the past decade – of pushing the right buttons post-bye.

Tomlin's career record is 165-94-2, a winning percentage of .636.

But since 2013, the Steelers have compiled a record of 36-32-1 before the Steelers have their bye week. Post-bye, the Steelers have gone 61-28-1. That's a winning percentage of .683.

A .683 winning percentage for the remainder of this season would give the Steelers eight more wins the rest of the way and 11 for the season.