Good news: The Steelers defense isn’t awful anymore

Holding the Giants to 14 points, half of which were garbage time, continues Pittsburgh’s run of solid defensive wins.

NFL: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Steelers ‘Steeler-like’ on defense again? After a convincing 24-14 win over the New York Giants, they might be getting there.

The Giants came into Sunday’s game with a middle-of-the-pack passing game and the second-worst rushing attack in the NFL and Pittsburgh took advantage, holding New York to just 56 yards on the ground — 21.5 yards below their abysmal average — while keeping everyone but Odell Beckham Jr. in check in the pass game, limiting Eli Manning to 195 yards, nearly 50 below the team’s average.

Most importantly, Pittsburgh held the Giants to just 14 points on offense, including a fantasy football special in absolute garbage time.

“I just think we’re finding our rhythm,” head coach Mike Tomlin said about the defense after the game. “I think we’re gaining continuity with the mix of guys that are playing. The young guys are growing up. Generally, I think it’s about the cohesion, and the guys are gaining rhythm in that way, in terms of not only knowing what they’re doing, but knowing what’s going on around them.”

The Giants offense isn’t great, no, but the team did come into Pittsburgh riding a six-game win streak in which they scored 21 points or more in each of their four games since the bye. The defensive performance was exactly what the Steelers needed at this point in the season, controlling their own destiny with four games to play and righting a ship that was certainly sinking three weeks ago.

The loss to Dallas on Nov. 13, at home with the entire country watching, was a low point for Pittsburgh’s defense under defensive coordinator Keith Butler. Dallas racked up 442 yards on just 59 plays, beating the Steelers 35-30 in a game that was only that close because Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell woke up and started to play like they were supposed to play this year.

That loss was the third time this season that Tomlin’s team had given up 30 or more points, and the fourth time the opponent cracked 26 points. Last season, Pittsburgh gave up 30 or more twice, and 27 or more four times.

In 2014, Dick LeBeau’s last season in charge of the defense, the Steelers gave up 30 or more four times, and 26 or more seven times.

They went 11-5 that season.

Okay, the math doesn’t always work, as that year seemed to be something of an anomaly, winning games by outscoring everyone, not stopping them on defense. In 2013 the defense finished the year in the middle of the pack statistically and had five games of 30 or more points allowed — including a 40-point game and a 55-point game — and six games giving up 26 or more that season, winning only two. Unlike 2014 and 2015 where the team made the playoffs, 8-8 definitely wasn’t good enough that year, because of the defense.

The same 8-8 wasn’t good enough in 2012 either, despite the Steelers ranking sixth in points and first in yards on defense. Still, three games giving up 30 or more and two more of 26 or more contributed to five losses that year.

NFL: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Suddenly, after three weeks in which the Steelers have limited their opponents to 14 points or less, the 2016 Steelers seem a little more like the 2015 team that sat at 6-5 after 11 games and won four of the next five to make the playoffs, holding their opponents to fewer than three touchdowns five times.

This season has been even simpler to track than the end of last year. When the Steelers give up 21 points or more, they lose. When they give up less, they win.

Through 12 games, Pittsburgh has lost the games they’ve given up 35, 34, 30, 27 and 21 and won the games they’ve given up 16 twice, 14 twice, 13, 9 and 7.

“I feel like it’s an attitude for us,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said about the change in success for the defense the last few weeks. “The coaching staff, coach Tomlin, they demand a lot from us. Practice has been going real well, and it’s been going over to the game field from the practice field, and that’s been a key for us.”

“I feel like we’re just taking it week to week right now,” Timmons said. “We’re not saying any type of thing. We’re just taking it one game at a time. We’re not making anything mystical about it, just enjoying the journey.”

The Steelers are enjoying it more now because their run defense has stepped up a ton. They are 0-4 in games they’ve given up more than 100 yards rushing — they’ve had four woeful rushing defense games this season, including the loss to Dallas — but Pittsburgh is 7-1 when holding the opponent under 100 yards rushing, including the last three games.

Despite averaging 4.0 yards per run, the Giants finished with just 56 yards on the ground, only carrying the ball 14 times. The old cliché in football is that the best defense is a good offense, so it’s little surprise Bell’s reemergence as a top NFL back has coincided with the defense suddenly turning into one of the league’s best units. The Giants can’t run, but they really couldn’t when they got down multiple scores.

Last week the Andrew Luckless Colts carried the ball just 23 times for 91 yards as they trailed most of the game, forcing their offense to become one dimensional. The week before, against the Browns, the Steelers gave up just 2.5 yards per rush on 13 carries.

The Steelers defense forced two turnovers in each of the last three games, including a game-defining red zone interception by Timmons on Sunday. They now rank seventh in the NFL in points allowed, surrendering less than 20 per game, and while the pass defense needs work in general, currently ranked 19th, the rush defense (ranked 6th) is back where the Steelers need it to be.

NFL: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

This season has been a roller coaster, defensively, begging the question if the defense woke up after imploding in the waning minutes of the Dallas loss, one Mike Mitchell called “un-Steelerlike”, or if they merely had the benefit of playing three-straight games against subpar offenses.

The Cleveland Browns are barely an NFL team, with only Los Angles averaging fewer points per contest and just three teams averaging fewer yards.

The Colts rank in the middle of the pack in yards and points, but the Steelers got them on a short week without Luck. All Pittsburgh had to do was dress enough players on Thanksgiving, and they were set to win that game.

And that’s precisely why the Giants win is so impressive, and so important. It’s good to rack up wins against the worst offenses in the NFL, but beating a team riding a six-game win streak with eight wins in 11 games and doing it as resoundingly as the Steelers beat up on Eli and the Giants? It’s a potential season changer.

Tomlin was asked if he keeps an eye on what Baltimore is doing, to which he replied, “I don’t, because I know that if we handle the business in our stadium we don’t have to look outside our stadium at Baltimore or anyone else. We’re going to stay singularly focused on that and I imagine at some point, we’ll be in the stadium with those guys.”

Uh yeah, coach. You’ll be in a stadium with them — your stadium — in three weeks. Game’s on Christmas. It’s kind of a big deal.

"Hi." "Hey." "See you on Christmas."

"Hi." "Hey." "See you on Christmas."

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, a lot can happen between now and Christmas. Baltimore is still in the division lead given the Ravens’ head-to-head victory over Pittsburgh earlier this season, but both teams sit at 7-5 with the Ravens finishing the year at New England, hosting Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh and at Cincinnati.

The Steelers have to travel to Buffalo, who did give Oakland a fight this weekend, then host division rival Cincinnati, who trounced the Eagles on Sunday, before hosting Baltimore and Cleveland.

The division is there to be won, and while the offense has started to look like the Super Bowl contending unit people thought it would be with Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown leading the way this season, it’s the defense that’s going to have to get the Steelers there.

Suddenly, they look up for the fight.