NFL News & Analysis

Pittsburgh Steelers' dominant defensive line makes them the Favorites in the AFC

Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrates the missed field goal by Tennessee Titans kicker Stephen Gostkowski (3) during the second half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The pass rush vs. coverage debate is one PFF has harped on about regularly over the past few years. While we believe coverage to be more valuable, we also believe that being dominant in one aspect goes a long way to building a playoff-caliber roster, and there’s no debating the fact that being utterly dominant is the goal.

Simply being “good” across the board isn’t enough in today’s NFL, with modern offenses dictating how defenses have to react. No, defenses have to have a unit dominant enough to make offenses adjust in order to take back the balance of power. And as it stands right now, there’s no more dominant unit in the NFL than the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ defensive line. Because of it, they’re not only a threat to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC; they should be considered the favorite in the conference.

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The thing about a dominant defensive line is that not only does it impact the passing game, but it can also single-handedly shut down a running game.

The Steelers have both the top-graded run defense and pass rush in the NFL. On Sunday, they held Titans running back Derrick Henry to 75 yards on 20 carries — Henry's second-lowest output of the season — a week after he went for 212 yards on 22 carries. The Steelers are allowing fewer than 70 yards per game to opponents on the ground this season, and their defensive line allows them the freedom to scheme without any sort of worry about the run game whatsoever.

Ask any defensive coordinator and they’ll tell you that forcing teams to become one-dimensional is the goal. The Steelers do that simply through talent, and then at that point, they give their defensive line freedom to attack.

They stunt and slant far more than any other team in the NFL, and you simply can’t do that if you don’t trust your defensive line to win because of the holes it can create in the run game. So far this season, they've run some form of stunt on 20.3% of the pass plays they’ve faced. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have run more so far. The result has been a league-leading 46.2% pressure rate that blows away every other team in the league. The difference between them and second place is the same difference between second and eighth place.

Oct 25, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) is hit by Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams (98) during the first half at Nissan Stadium. Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The impact that pressure makes can’t be understated. It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is — pressure makes a massive impact. In arguably the greatest quarterbacking season of all time, Patrick Mahomes had a 134.2 passer rating when kept clean and a 70.4 passer rating under pressure. Putting any elite quarterback under pressure on nearly half of their plays is likely to turn them into an average quarterback.

That’s what we saw once again against a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, who had a top-five passing grade heading into Sunday. Pittsburgh went -3 in the turnover column against a fellow undefeated team and still held out for a win while giving up 24 points (though they lucked out a bit with a missed field goal from Stephen Gostkowski).

It’s not a fluke by any means, either. The Steelers have four starters along the defensive line with overall grades over 84.0 at the moment, and that doesn’t include the franchise-tagged Bud Dupree, who has underperformed after a breakout 2019 season.

Outside linebacker T.J. Watt is in the mix for the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year Award and is the only player in the NFL with pass-rush and run-defense grades above 90.0 on the season. The mixture of elite talent that offensive lines have to account for and depth that can win one-on-ones across the board is unparalleled across the NFL.

We haven’t even touched on the Steelers offense that has one of the most promising young receiving corps in the NFL, nor have we mentioned the fact that the Steelers are a top-five scoring team in the league. The Chiefs are the reigning Super Bowl champs and still have Patrick Mahomes, but the Steelers have been the best team in the NFL through seven weeks and should be the favorites in the AFC.


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