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It's Too Early To Worry About The Steelers Pass Defense

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Move along, people. Nothing to see here. The Steelers and their pass defense will be just fine.

Steelers wins in Weeks 6 and 7 made it easy to overlook the impressive production of two league-average quarterbacks (Colt McCoy of the Browns and Chad Henne of the Dolphins) against Pittsburgh's pass defense. However, the clinic Drew Brees put on this Halloween evening - he went 20-for-22 in the second half - may have some fans pushing the panic button.

Not so fast, y'all. Understanding the Steelers pass defense is a tricky matter, but looks can be deceiving: in the end, Pittsburgh's (in)ability to stop the pass looks much worse on paper than it actually is. Let's take a look at how opposing quarterbacks have fared against the Steelers since the team's Week 5 bye:

Colt McCoy Chad Henne Drew Brees Three-Week Average
Yards 281 257 305 281
Completion % 69.7 63.9 77.3 70.8
YPA 8.5 7.1 6.9 7.5

At first glance, these numbers look pretty damning. Insurmountable, even. After all, any quarterback who completes over 70 percent of his passes at 7.5 yards per attempt is probably giving his team a good shot to win.

But what if I told you that these three quarterbacks also averaged nearly 3 sacks and more than one turnover per game, while converting a paltry 39 percent of their third downs? That's what happens when you make your opposition's attack completely one-dimensional. And that's why Pittsburgh has been able to win two of the above contests, despite getting shredded through the air.

To say that the Steelers defense makes opposing offenses "completely one-dimensional" almost doesn't do justice to their dominance up front. I'll let the numbers speak for themselves this time:

Browns Dolphins Saints Three-Week Average
Rushing yards 70 64 30 55
YPC 3.2 3.0 1.4 2.6

On the season, the Steelers lead the league, allowing only 58.9 ypg on the ground; the next closest team, the San Diego Chargers, is allowing 83.1. Furthermore, the Steelers have held the lead over their opponents for most of the season, so their passing yards allowed are more indicative of circumstance - opponents, usually playing from behind, cannot run on them - than they are of some schematic or personnel failing. Here's Brees before the Saints game:

"All (the passing defense statistics) mean is that the Steelers have been ahead in most of their games and that teams can't run against them. In reality, they're good all the way around on defense."

Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden agrees:

"The only thing you can read into (those stats) is that it's almost impossible to run the ball against us. We pride ourselves [on] stopping the run of course we're seeing more passes. You can't run against us. You don't want to try [to] run against us. So you try to throw the ball against us.

"At the end of the day, the best stat I'd want is fewest points allowed. That's the most important statistic, and right now we're doing a good job keeping teams off the scoreboard."

That they are. Despite Sunday night's 20-point "outburst," the Steelers still lead the league in scoring defense with a mere 14.6 points allowed per game.

Finally, here's safety Ryan Clark, favoring another statistic:

"Teams are trying to get into their two-minute offenses to move the ball, so in some sense it is kind of skewed. I think the biggest number is touchdown passes given up, and we haven't given up that many."

Through seven games, the Steelers have given up six touchdowns through the air, the second least in the league. They remain near the top of the heap in interceptions, sacks, and total yards allowed.

Now, if the Steelers couldn't stop the run, I might be singing a different tune. Think about what can go wrong when you run the ball. Your back could fumble or you could lose, what, three or four yards on a busted attempt? By contrast, the downside on any given pass is COMPLETE AND UTTER DISASTER.

The frequency of interceptions per pass attempt is much higher than that of fumbles lost per rushing attempt, and such turnovers can happen through fluky means - a ball tipped at the line, a botched route by a young receiver - that are mostly beyond the control of the quarterback. Sacks, for their part, result in more lost yardage and more fumbles than failed runs, and they subject the centerpiece of your franchise to a physical beating.

Sure, passing plays gain more yards than plays on the ground, but that comes at a price, as they have comparatively enormous downside, too. So all things being equal, would you rather have a defense that ranks 25th against the pass and first against the run, like the Steelers, or a team that ranks, say, seventh against the pass and 28th against the run? Or how about a defense that ranks 26th against the run and fourth against the pass? What about 32nd against the run and 6th against the pass?

If it makes your decision any easier - it probably shouldn't have to, but hey - the second defense is that of the Indianapolis Colts. The other two belong to the Oakland Raiders and the Buffalo Bills, respectively. The Colts have long won in spite of their defense, not because of it, while the other two are systematically losing franchises. After all, passing defensive rankings can often be an indication of circumstance, but rushing defensive ranks are often an indication of deficiency.

Besides, check the schedule. The only quarterback left on the slate who's even remotely capable of the completion percentage Brees managed to tally is Tom Brady of the New England Patriots in Week 10.

So the next time an opposing quarterback completes a long strike over the middle on 3rd-and-8, take a deep breath before spouting an inspired string of profanities or throwing your cat at the TV. The Steelers and their pass defense will be just fine.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.