2020 NFL playoffs: Steelers title hopes hinge on their defense

Steelers fans live for weeks like this, when we look forward to a Steelers playoff game.

It seems like we haven’t experienced this feeling enough in recent years, however.

The Steelers’ wild-card matchup against the Browns Sunday night at Heinz Field will be their first playoff game in three years, and it’s been four years since they’ve won a playoff game.

Actually, it’s been a pretty disappointing decade since the last time the Steelers went to the Super Bowl in 2010. They’ve missed the playoffs four times and they’re 3-5 in the playoff games that they’ve played. They’ve reached one AFC championship game, where they were shellacked 36-17 at New England in 2016.

Maybe Steelers fans were spoiled by two Super Bowl wins and another Super Bowl appearance between 2005 and 2010, and Steelers fans of a certain age still might be spoiled by those four championships in the 1970s.

Now, it’s not about winning titles in bunches and dominating an era. It’s about squeezing one more championship out of Ben Roethlisberger‘s career and breaking the tie with the Patriots in the all-time standings with a seventh Lombardi Trophy.

For that to happen, it will be up to the defense.

The Steelers ranked third in the NFL in yards allowed, points allowed and turnover differential this season, according to Pro Football Reference. The last time they ranked in the top three or better in all three of those categories was 2010, the last time they reached the Super Bowl. Coincidence?

Sure, the offense is going to have to perform well enough so that the defense doesn’t have to carry the team. The Steelers’ inability to run the ball is a problem and Roethlisberger is going to have to get two good halves in the same game out of his 38-year-old arm.

Historically, however, it’s the defense that drives the Steelers to championships. All six of their Super Bowl-winning teams have ranked in the top five in both points and yards allowed.

Despite having a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback like Roethlisberger, the Steelers haven’t been able to win championships with their offense.

Their offense ranked in the top 10 in both points and yards every year from 2014 to 2018, and what do they have to show for it? A playoff win in 2015 over a Bengals team quarterbacked by A.J. McCarron and playoff wins in 2016 over a Dolphins team quarterbacked by Matt Moore and a Chiefs team quarterbacked by Alex Smith.

Those middling Steelers defenses couldn’t overcome a decrepit Peyton Manning in the 2015 playoffs or Tom Brady in 2016. Blake Bortles and the Jaguars ousted the Steelers the next year, but to be fair the Steelers did have an elite defense that year before losing Ryan Shazier to a career-ending injury late in the season.

The 2020 Steelers also lost a playmaking inside linebacker when Devin Bush went down in Week 6, but this time they’ve done a better job patching up the hole. Robert Spillane, who could return Sunday after missing four games with an injury, has been a pleasant surprise. Avery Williamson, acquired in a midseason trade with the Jets, has 52 tackles in eight games with the Steelers. If he had maintained that pace over a full season he’d be second in the NFL.

There’s also some hope that Alex Highsmith ultimately can help the Steelers overcome the loss of Bud Dupree. The third-round rookie, who didn’t play regularly until Dupree was hurt in Week 13, has two sacks this season including one in Cleveland last week. He seems to be finding his way to the quarterback even though the numbers don’t yet show it.

The numbers do show T.J. Watt‘s impact. He led the NFL this season with 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss and is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. It’s another sign that the Steelers defense might be recapturing the championship mettle that’s been missing for the last decade. The Steelers’ last two Super Bowl teams featured a Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison in 2008 and Troy Polamalu in 2010.

This will be Watt’s second playoff game. He didn’t have a sack in his first one, the Steelers’ 45-42 loss to Jacksonville in the 2017 divisional round. With Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson standing in the way, Watt will have to keep playing like a DPOY candidate in the playoffs for the Steelers to have any shot at the Super Bowl.

It also will help if Stephon Tuitt can put Baker Mayfield on the ground and then hopefully do the same to Mahomes, Allen or Jackson. Tuitt had a breakout year in 2020 with career-highs in sacks (11), tackles for loss (10) and quarterback hits (25). The Steelers have been waiting for this kind of production since he was drafted in the second round in 2014. Tuitt will be playing in his eighth playoff game Sunday and he’s still looking for his first postseason sack.

Minkah Fitzpatrick is another guy who will need to make some plays. He’s due for another takeaway binge like he had in the middle of the 2019 season when he intercepted four passes in three games. He returned one of those for a touchdown and also ran back a fumble for a touchdown during that stretch.

Fitzpatrick’s pick-six gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead and set the tone in their 38-7 win over the Browns in Week 6 this season. The safety had an interception at Dallas in Week 9 and two more two weeks later in Jacksonville. He also saved victories in back-to-back weeks by breaking up last-second passes at the goal line at Dallas and at Baltimore.

Fitzpatrick and Watt were named first-team All-Pro Friday, according to Pro Football Talk. Cameron Heyward is a second-team All-Pro.

For most of the last decade, the star power in Pittsburgh was on the offensive side of the ball. Now that it’s on the defensive side, perhaps this experience of looking forward to Steelers playoff games will last a few more weeks.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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