PITTSBURGH -- If you’re an opposing quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’ll probably get sacked a lot, and you’ll probably have a hard time scoring more than 20 points.
But you’ll get yardage. Lots of yardage.
Passing defense is holding back Pittsburgh from making the leap from good to great, from returning to the 'Blitzburgh' days that defined the Bill Cowher and early Mike Tomlin years.
Safety Will Allen seems to know it.
That’s why he’s lobbying for a six-game goal to end the year – give up between 200 to 250 passing yards per game. That’s at least 28 less than the Steelers’ average of 278, the third-worst in the league.
“These last few weeks, 300 yards a game is not good,” Allen said.
The Steelers have an identity on defense, which they didn’t seem to have last year. The numbers spell it out. Twenty-eight sacks through 10 games ranks fourth in the league. They get pressure, sometimes without blitz help, which is what defensive coordinator Keith Butler wants. Defensive end Cam Heyward has been a beast. Stephon Tuitt and Steve McLendon have been productive. When the defensive lineman are winning up front and stopping the run, that allows the outside linebackers to find open lanes to the quarterback and the Steelers to sit back in coverage.
The Steelers are blitzing 35.6 percent of the time, the 10th-highest clip in the league. But occasional breaks in coverage has resulted in receivers and tight ends getting loose behind the back seven.
“We never want to give up that kind of yardage,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “We understand teams are good…We need to step up our performance.”
At least they don’t give up points. They rank fifth in scoring defense at 19.1 points per game. They let offenses move the ball downfield but often stop them in the red zone.
Safety Mike Mitchell said the Steelers have improved clamping down on opposing tight ends, who have burned them in the past. Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates combined for five touchdowns against Pittsburgh earlier in the year. Browns tight end Gary Barnidge had 65 yards and a touchdown on Sunday but wasn’t a game-breaker. Based on the Cleveland game, it appears Timmons is getting more help. The Steelers have asked him to cover speedy wideouts or tight ends 40 yards downfield, which is unfair, even for a versatile player like Timmons.
“How many times are we going to play an elite tight end or a guy that’s really good at the tight end position and let him beat us?” Mitchell said. “I thought we did a good job [Sunday] hitting them when we need to hit them, being alert when we need to be alert.”
Help from the opposition could be on the way. The Steelers faced six of the top 10 passing offenses in their first 10 games based on per-game yardage. In the final six games, they face two, Cincinnati and Baltimore.
The Steelers can accept giving up yardage if they stop the run and maintain a pass rushing attitude quarterbacks can’t ignore. Seven different Steelers have at least two sacks this year .
“Getting the quarterback on edge is everything,” Timmons said. “When they aren’t able to finish through their throws, compress the pocket, make them feel uncomfortable, that’s what we need.”
A year ago,that mindset was merely a theory. The Steelers finished the year with 33 sacks, ranking 26th in the league. They will eclipse that total soon.