I have to admit, I never thought I would see the NFL playing this season. A sport that vehemently defies the social distancing mandate and errant spit undoubtedly attacking players on every play. Yet here we are, the 2020 NFL season is upon us and there are some exciting storylines to watch out for; especially in the Steel City. While the offense contains question marks across the starting 11…like will James Conner get back to his 2018 form? Is a 38 year old Big Ben fully recovered from his injury? Will Juju bounce back from an abysmal 2019 season? Call me a downer but I’m not too optimistic about any of those questions. But what I am excited for is this Steelers Defense. The Steel Curtain is back!
The Front 7 Stand Outs
Last season, you may remember the Steelers dealt with turmoil after Ben went down from his elbow injury. His backup quarterback almost got decapitated by his helmet and the assistant to the backup is named after a duck. The only aspect of this team that kept the Steelers in football games was the defense. Lead by the youngest of the Watt brothers, TJ, the Steelers forced the most turnovers in the NFL last season with 38. TJ forced 8 fumbles and picked off 2 passes yet was still snubbed as the Defensive Player of the Year by Stephon Gilmore.
The Steelers also lead the NFL in QB hits with 118 as Watt & Cameron Heyward contributed for a combined 50% of the hits. Not only are they hitting the QB but they’re bringing them down too. Watt lead the Steelers with 14.5 sacks (good for 4th in the NFL). Bud Dupree had 11.5 and Heyward contributed with 9 himself. Hard to throw a pass when you’ve got someone knocking you down!
Not to be overshadowed by Watt’s MVP-like season was rookie phenom Devin Bush. The Steelers front office must have had a crystal ball to know he was going to be special. They traded up in the 2019 draft just to get him. Bush lead the team in tackles with 109, and also had 2 interceptions and 4 fumble recoveries to boot. The guy always seems to be around the ball and most likely, taking it away from the opponent. I don’t know about you but after watching this highlight video from Bush, I’m excited about year 2.
A controversial trade in mid-September that had Yinzers all up in arms landed the Steelers an All-Pro safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick in exchange for a #1 pick. This trade was a no-brainer as far I was concerned. Either take a chance with someone in the draft or pick up a young guy who will contribute immediately. Minkah certainly wasted no time, tied the lead for the Steelers with 5 interceptions, and won the hearts of fans in his first game with one against the 49ers. Accompanying Fitz in the safety position is Terrell Edmunds, who quietly had an extremely productive 2019 season. He was second on the Steelers in total tackles with 105, trailing just behind Bush. I don’t expect many passes to go over these two guys’ heads this season.
The pair chasing down the wide receivers are probably two of the most reliable cornerbacks in the league. Joe Haden (I can’t believe is only 31 years old) and Steven Nelson had amazing seasons in 2019. Haden had 5 interceptions and 65 tackles, but the most impressive stat comes from Nelson and it’s not one you’ll easily find. Nelson allowed 0 touchdowns to opposing receivers in 2019. That’s right, zero. Despite 74 targets and allowing 37 receptions none of them found the end zone. Quarterbacks will not be looking much in his direction this season as they only compiled a 65.8 passer rating in 2019. Serious flex right there.
Millenials & Low Turnover…What?!
Ok I know, those are past statistics so what else specifically is there to be excited about for this season? Well for one, the Steelers only lost one starter from the exceptional 2019 team in Javon Hargrave who signed this offseason with the Eagles. Within those starters, 7 of them are first round draft picks: Watt, Heyward, Fitzpatrick, Dupree, Haden, Bush, and Edmunds. Additionally, the Steelers defense will be young for a change with an average age of 26. For so many years we had geriatric but still productive players out there like James Farrior, James Harrison, & Troy Polamalu. It’ll be nice not having announcers remind Steelers fans of our defense ages for a change.
Another big reason the defense is going to be dominant is because the captain just got paidddddd. Cam Heyward just signed a 4 year $65.6 million extension that will most certainly mean retiring in the black & gold.
I know this is a lot of money but the big man has not only been dominant but reliable as well. He has 54 career sacks, three Pro Bowl appearances and has been named first team All-Pro twice in his career. Additionally, he personifies the “iron” part of his father’s nickname, Ironhead Heyward, having missed only 9 games throughout his 9 year career. Congrats, cap!
This season will either be amazing or disastrous for the Steelers. If Ben can return to vintage Ben form and stay healthy, there could be a Super Bowl in their future. However, the one thing that will remain consistent for this season is the dominance of the defense. Stairway to 7 here we come!
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