How Close Were the Steelers to a Championship: Defense
Now that the actual Super Bowl is over, we have some head-to-head data to look at. So while this is still pure speculation, we have a bit more meat to base any conclusions upon. (If you’re wondering what conclusions I’m talking about, Part 1 focused on the quarterbacks, Part 2a and Part 2b on the offense in general.)
As we look at what actually transpired last Sunday, the phrase “Defense Wins Championships” certainly comes to mind, but perhaps more strikingly than has been evident for quite some time. For one thing, when is the last time a defensive player was the Super Bowl MVP?
I asked myself this question, and it turns out the answer is, “not all that long ago.” Malcolm Smith of the Seahawks was the MVP two years ago. But in the last 20 Super Bowls a defensive player has only been the MVP two other times—Ray Lewis was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXV and Dexter Jackson of Tampa Bay was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVII. All Steelers Super Bowl MVPs were offensive players: Terry Bradshaw twice, Lynn Swann and Franco Harris once each, and Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes in the 21st century.
As you can see from the Steelers MVPs, offensive players dominating the MVP award is not a new phenomenon. Since Super Bowl I, Von Miller is only the 8th defensive player to win Super Bowl MVP, in 50 years. (If we’re going to be pedantic, two Dallas defensive linemen shared the award in XII, but it was still only a single award.) So defense may win championships, but it seems the offense usually gets the credit.
However, when your offense only gets the same number of touchdowns as your defense, I suppose it is a bit harder to ignore the role of the defense.
With this in mind, is there any reason to think the Steelers’ defense, as it was playing this post-season, would have been able to stifle the Panthers’ offense in the way the Broncos did?
Back in Part 2b (linked above) I gave the regular season stats for the Panthers, Broncos, and Steelers defenses, to compare them to the Colts, which was only team all three of the other teams played. Now I’m going to throw them out for the postseason. Alas, the Steelers defense only had two games in which to make their mark, but we can at least see what we’ve got.
As you can see, the Broncos were the best in every category except, strangely, takeaways. The Steelers were definitely the worst. But now I want to compare the Broncos defense vs. the Panthers offense to the Broncos defense vs. the Steelers offense, since this might also be interesting.
It’s plain to see the Broncos had far more effect vs. the 17-1 Panthers than they did against the 11-6 Steelers. And that was without the Steelers’ MVP, who was also the AFC North Offensive Player of the Year, Antonio Brown.
But how would the Steelers’ D have done against a more robust offensive team like the Panthers? It’s highly unlikely the Steelers D would have managed five sacks and four takeaways. However, when you can expect your offense to score a reasonable number of points, it doesn’t matter quite as much.
We’ll never know what would have happened, of course, but we can compare how the Steelers defense did against the teams they played in 2015. It is interesting to look at the scores of the games and compare the opposition’s score to their season average. So here is one final chart.
It helps to sort things out to have some color, so in the second column it is green if the Steelers defense held a team to under their season average, and red if they gave up more. In the next two columns wins are gold, losses black.
Interestingly, on the Dave Dameshek Football Program episode after the Divisional games, there was a good bit of talk about the Steelers defense, and Dameskek reminded Ike Taylor that he had said last August, to a fair amount of ridicule, that the Steelers defense was going to be a virtue for the Steelers by season’s end.
I don’t know that one would say the 2015 defense was fabulous, but in a year in which a number of young guys played, they mostly held their own, and that’s quite a lot better than most were expecting from them.