The Pittsburgh Steelers of 2019 are writing a story for themselves that defies the odds. It features a defense that has been transformed since the arrival of Minkah Fitzpatrick and just enough contributions from its young QB and its special teams. What that defense did yesterday was obvious: they took Jared Goff’s soul, buried Sean McVay’s genius tag under the pasted-on sod at Heinz Field, and outlasted a very good road team and very good defense.

 

In a defensive battle and extremely close game, the key was 3rd and 4th downs. Which one of these teams do you think won the game?

 

7/14 pass attempts for  98 yds  4 1st down,  1 sack (3 1st downs by penalty)

4/10 pass attempts for  47yds  1 1st, down,  2 sacks, fumble (ret for TD), 1 INT

 

Mason Rudolph has plenty to prove as an NFL QB and isn’t always the most consistent nor pocket aware… but with a defense like this, and with your running game struggling to stay upright, and your receivers generally not helping you out the way they should be… sometimes all you need to do is make a few plays. And that he did.

 

After a horrendous start which included Rudolph sitting on changeup and getting high heat, a couple of exceedingly shaky throws, a drop by JuJu that wasn’t the most on target, and a drop of a tough but catchable ball from Diontae Johnson (who else heard Lynch’s voice crying out ‘CLANK!!!’), Rudolph made several critical and confident throws, including a [patient and well-led crossing route to Diontae Johnson, a deep out route going right back to Johnson after the earlier drop/missed connection, a bullseye in-cut driven throw to James Washington on 2nd and long and a wonderful, precise, and surprisingly not lobbed backshoulder fade to Washington for a TD.

 

Speaking of James Washington he had a career day marred by a sloppy fumble lost with the ball in his inside hand in traffic. Otherwise, he was Mason’s go-to guy and delivered an amazing, contortionist catch for his team’s only offensive TD. Even the fumble came on a 37 yard gain that was a terrific catch and run. Honestly, have the Steelers WRs in the past 10-12 games had more fumbles than any group of WRs you can remember? Add in the RBs/TEs and this has definitely got to be a point of emphasis going forward. Better to red flag this after a win, rather than when it costs you the game. Again.

 

The OL had a battle with the Rams excellent front 7; they won some and lost some. There’s no shame in that, especially with Aaron Donald. To be fair, though, Villanueva and Chuks both were called for silly, powderpuff holding calls and other than that they held up pretty well on the edges. The problem was: Decastro had no answer for Aaron Donald in either the run or pass protection, Pouncey wasn’t even scraping Donald on his way to the second level, Fieler struggled when on the move as a guard… as worried as we were about Chuks, he may have had the best game out of the lot of them.  This week’s short turnaround for the sake of the NFL’s bank account and a game vs another strong pass-rushing front will be a strong test for the Steelers front 5, key to their offensive success this season.  Hopefully Foster will return, Feiler will go back to RT, where he’s excelled, and the interior play will be better. That being said, Myles Garrett vs Feiler is already at the top of my concern list for Thursday night.

 

Apologies to the defense and the readers for taking so long to really give proper respect to the defense. Here’s my short summary: WOW.

 

I’m not sure who gets credit for which changes but it sure seems like this defense is nearly to the level of the best defenses Tomlin has had here during his tenure. It could be coaching, which seems to feature more hands-on Tomlin for the D, more Bulter for the LBs, and more Terryl Austin for the DBs… but I have a feeling the answer rhymes with Blink Half It’s Hatrick.

 

The Rams aren’t the offensive juggernaut they once were, and the win streak has featured some pretty lackluster opponents… but the steelers since Minkah arrived have completely shut down the deep ball, to the tune of 0 Tds, 4 INT, and a passer rating in the single digits. Overall, the Steelers opposing offenses’ performance in that period looks like this:

 

in 7 games: 153/248 1579 yards, 9 TDs/11 INTs,  6.4 YPA, 73.64 passer rating, 28 sacks, 41 passes defensed, 2 defensive TDs, 19 forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries, 21 total turnovers.. They’re averaging around 4 sacks/6 PD/3 fumbles forced/ and 3 turnovers created per game.

 

I don’t have the exact stats for how they’ve done vs slot receivers this year, but I can’t remember a better performance than they’ve posted in that reagrd this year. Holding Cooper Kupp down to nothing was a team effort, but everybody in the secondary is hot as can be right now.

 

As for Minkah, he has essentially provided the winning margin a couple of times himself, but it’s not just the takeaways he’s had (which are enough to garner attention as a potential DPOY)… it’s how much better it’s made everyone else around him. Joe Haden and Sam Sutton made more plays on the ball yesterday than the Steelers may have had from every DB in the entirety of 2018. Nelson has exceeded expectations and is playing at a Pro Bowl level as a #2. Edmunds may have his flaws and an ongoing learning curve, but he’s in much better position to make plays AM (After Minkah) than he was PM (post-Minkah). Even Mark Barron is improved, because Minkah’s range (not just east-west but also north-south) allows Barron to more often than not cover RBs out of the backfield, which he does pretty well.

 

But the ILBs are still the biggest weakness on the defense. The Rams use a lot of eye candy and misdirection and their offense is pretty much designed to keep overeager ILBs spinning in circles… which Bush literally was at times yesterday. He’d go with the jet sweep fake then pause for the RB fake, then slowly spin out of it into a semblance of coverage, looking just dizzy and lost while the ball went past his ear or over his head. Mark Barron is slow to react in coverage and can be burned by any TE head fake route. Making matters worse, his play against the run couldn’t have been worse yesterday. Several of the long Gurley runs were plays where everyone DL had the proper gap but Barron shuffled into a pile of frontside alignment instead of working with the RB to aggressively find the gap. Combine that with Bush struggling to find equilibrium vs the motion and traps and the interior was gashed at times.  The moment Vince Williams came into the game, he aggressively scraped off the ZBS block, shot the gap, and planted the RB. You’d have to think Williams will be essential vs a Browns team suddenly built around Nick Chubb’s running, because Barron and Bush playing together is not going to cut it.

 

But that is about the only criticism I can make about the defense’s play.  Wow, were the DL and EDGE fantastic yesterday.  Heyward and Dupree were bull-rushing anyone who got in their path, Hargrave bullied the backup center into a huge sack/fumble, and TJ Watt was just terrorizing the Rams RT Havenstein. The up and under dip move Watt displayed on a late sack was pretty much as good as it gets.

 

But it isn’t just the great coverage, takeaways, or dominant pass rush, although those are all fantastic. It was the swagger, the bullying— the Steelers defense isn’t just winning, they’re making teams cry uncle. They’re back to being that defense that sticks with the opponent. Indy just lost to MIA and it would surprise no one if the Rams have trouble recovering from this game. It’s really fun to watch, despite the offense’s inconsistency making it a white-knuckle ride. If only there was a perfect universe where the defense was just as it is now and the PK was making every kick… and Ben was 100% and starting. They would be no worse than the 2nd or 3rd favorite for the Lombardi. As it is, I still struggle to think of teams that I’d feel certain the Steelers aren’t going to beat, especially if their young QB makes the handful of plays he needs to make and continues to threaten the intermediate part of the field. In a way, I think it might be some teams that aren’t the best overall that might give some trouble to the Steelers as presently construed. A team with a dominant defensive front and a good running game on a good day could outscore these Steelers. Unfortunately, one of those is waiting for the Steelers to come to town on Thursday.

 

But let us raise a glass to this resilient Steelers team and their much-maligned coaches and front office: they have added the right pieces, improved their weaknesses, and generally answered the challenge to this point.  At the moment, this injury-riddled, minus offensive superstars unlikely team sit in the 6th seed of the playoffs, are 1 game out of the 5 seed, and are only 2 games out of the division lead. This team, once left for dead at the side of the road, is now firmly in a race for a playoff spot and not unthinkably behind in the race for the #2 seed. The Steelers have very little in the way of unlikely wins left on their schedule, and Baltimore still has the 49ers on their schedule. There could still be unexpected losses and a few more rabbits to pull out of hats… but never a dull moment, so STAY TUNED!