Minkah Magic: Pittsburgh Steelers Are Back to ‘Blitz’-burgh Defense

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minkahThe in-season acquisition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was under heavy scrutiny at first. Fans questioned if Fitzpatrick would have a big enough impact to offset a potential top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Since his start in Week 3, Fitzpatrick has made one thing very clear: he is worth that first-round pick and more.

Pittsburgh Steelers Rolling Thanks to Minkah Magic

There’s no denying the top of the Steelers’ schedule was brutal. Pittsburgh opened the season with a crushing defeat at the hands of the dominant New England Patriots, followed by a nail-biting loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The losing tour ended with a West Coast road trip where the San Francisco 49ers delivered the Steelers their third consecutive loss.

The Pittsburgh defense was barely scraping by. According to Week 3 DVOA data, the Steelers had a defensive efficiency rate of 21.3 percent, ranked 26th in the league and 30th for overall team efficiency. That’s out of 32 teams: third worst in a world that the Miami DolphinsCincinnati Bengals, and Washington Redskins all exist.

Fast forward to Week 5 of the regular season. The Steelers found themselves down a quarterback once after Mason Rudolph had to be escorted off the field with a major concussion. It was showtime for the Steelers defense up against a uniquely powerful Baltimore Ravens offense led by Lamar Jackson. The defense came away with three interceptions and held the Ravens to their smallest lead of the season. It was an all-out battle for both teams as the clock ran into overtime.

A 46-yard field goal from Justin Tucker, the best kicker in the league, secured the win for Baltimore. Despite the loss, Pittsburgh’s ability to go toe-to-toe with an offense that has proven to be the powerhouse of this season was the beginning of a new or maybe not-so-new era of defensive play. Fans are already hailing this transformation as a return to a defensive golden age. Could this young defense be the ‘Steel Curtain’ of a new age?

Welcome Back to ‘Blitz’-burgh

This Pittsburgh team was plagued by injuries and roster shake-ups early in the season. As dramatic as football season can be many were already looking to the future. A 2020 first-round draft pick could be a huge tool for the future of this franchise that needed a reset. When news broke that the Steelers had given up a first-round pick in the 2020 draft for Minkah Fitzpatrick, the second-year safety out of Miami, fans questioned if he would be worth the loss of a potential top-10 pick.

Fitzpatrick put all of those questions to bed Sunday night against the Los Angeles Rams at home in Heinz Stadium. The energy was electric as fans watched the Pittsburgh defense dominate the Rams offense. The Steelers gave the Rams a true ‘Blitz’burgh welcome denying them an offensive touchdown the entire game. The last time the Rams were held like this was their December 9th matchup against the Chicago Bears last season.

The trade for Fitzpatrick back in Week 2 wasn’t a quick fix but over the weeks he’s proven he is the man to revolutionize this defense. The in-season acquisition of Fitzpatrick brought with it huge reductions in yards allowed and boosts in defensive DVOA rankings. Week 9 data has Pittsburgh tied with the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Rams for the third-best defense in the league. From 21.3 percent back in week three to a competitive -8.8 percent defensive efficiency rating is a huge leap.

Fans who once questioned his impact are singing his praises as this defensive renaissance continues to take shape. Fitzpatrick is the only player to have at least one interception in three consecutive games since Pittsburgh royalty Troy Polamalu. A new hope is growing behind this young defensive scheme. This could be the beginning of another golden age for the black and yellow defense.

They’re Just Getting Started

There’s been a huge focus on the youth movement on the offensive side of the ball out in Pittsburgh with stand out young guns like Juju Smith-Shuster and James Conner putting on a show last season. Now, we are seeing a resurgence on the defensive end led by incredibly strong and young talent in the back end. TJ Watt, 25, Devin Bush, 21, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, 22, are some of the most lethal weapons the Steelers have on the field and they’re just getting started.

Sunday’s showing highlighted this defense’s ability to pressure the quarterback. According to Laura Okmin’s coverage of the game for Fox Sports, it’s not opposing offenses that this Steelers team is preparing for. Okmin took to Twitter to explain Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree’s defensive mentality. So how does this defense prepare if they’re not solely focused on the offense?

“We want to be the best defense in the stadium,” said Dupree. For this defense they must measure up against their opposing defense and past Steeler defenses, that is the true benchmark. It’s this mentality combined with a raw power coming out of the defensive end that is turning the Steeler season around.

Can They Keep It Up?

The great news for Steelers fans is that this team has been able to find some serious strengths amid a brutal schedule and injury melodrama. What’s coming next should be a great relief for the Pittsburgh franchise. This second half of their schedule doesn’t present too many challenges ahead.

Over the next six weeks, their toughest opponent is shaping up to be the Buffalo Bills on December 15th. They will face the Cleveland Browns twice in the meantime. It’s no secret that the Browns franchise is their own worst opponent. Also in the onslaught are the Cincinnati Bengals and the Arizona Cardinals who both hold the last place positions for their respective divisions.

This team could be the comeback threat of the season. The true test will come on December 29th when this Steelers defense travels to Baltimore for what can only be called a redemption match.

From a November 11, 2019 report for Last Word on Sports: NFL.



Time to Start Taking San Francisco’s Streak Seriously

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From pretenders to bona fide Super Bowl contenders.

The San Francisco 49ers are taking the league by storm this season as they rise to a 5-0 record joining the New England Patriots as the only two teams remaining undefeated entering into week seven of the regular season. Yes, you read that right. The team that ended off their losing 2018-2019 season at a dismal 4-12 is not only topping the NFC West but also team efficiency charts with a total DVOA of +58.1%.

I, like many, have discounted San Francisco’s success so far as a fluke or a fever dream. But, can you really blame me? This time last season San Francisco was ranked 29th in team efficiency with a total DVOA of -22.6%. That’s 29th out of 32. I’ll admit their meteoric rise has been incredible to watch but I’d be lying if I said I anticipated it coming. Richard Sherman and his defense aren’t taking any of the success as a surprise though. In his post-game press conference, Sherman had a message for anybody still discounting the boys out of the Bay.

“It’s business as usual. The previous performances should have been enough to get these guys the respect they deserve.”

What the Niners lack in their reputation, they’ve been sure to make up for this season in their record. Niners fans and skeptics alike can’t deny the explosive defensive play that led them to their decisive victory over the defending NFC champs down in Los Angeles.

This Sunday was a must-win for the struggling Rams coming off of a hard-fought loss against the Seahawks. Given their reputation as the defending NFC Division champs and San Francisco’s horrendous history against divisional opponents – having gone 2-10 in NFC West contests since Kyle Shanahan’s start in 2017 – it was only a matter of time before the streak had to end. The big, bad boys out of the Bay, however, had different plans.

After an early first-quarter punch to the gut from Goff and company putting San Francisco down 7-0, the Niners completely dismantled the Rams offensive scheme denying them a single point for the rest of the game. Goff was honest with reporters about the impression San Francisco’s dominant defense left on him after the game.

“No it’s not surprising,” Goff said of the Niner’s success this season. “They’re coached very well and defensively they’ve got some dudes up front who can do their thing. They’re going to give a lot of teams some problems.”

“Let’s be real we haven’t been winning here the first two years.”

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke to reporters about how this season’s success is impacting the San Francisco locker room. Despite his hype man reputation, the man behind this explosive defense knows there’s always work to be done to keep the streak alive. Saleh said, “Let’s be real, we haven’t been winning here the first two years. So with every win, you just keep stacking up confidence.”

A light schedule in the coming weeks will only help boost that confidence. You could argue that they are taking on the worst team in the league in Washington this Sunday if you – like most of the country – forgot that Miami still existed. The Panthers also won’t pose a major threat to this defensive juggernaut when they face off.

If you’re among the skeptics and the doubters who swore the Niners would peter out after their early bye week or be stifled by the Rams it might be time for you to start making the apology rounds to all the San Francisco faithful you scoffed at.