PITTSBURGH — The difference in the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier insists, isn’t in what is happening after the snap, but before it.
The kids like nose tackle Javon Hargrave, cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis that spent a most of 2016 listening during their promising rookie seasons are now talking. So is everyone else.
“It’s definitely a lot louder,” Shazier said. “Guys are aware of each other and what can happen on a play before they even line up in their formation.”
Shazier would know. He wears “the dot” in his helmet, getting the call from defensive coordinator Keith Butler transmitted into his ear. The play is echoed up and down the line of scrimmage, as the Steelers point, jump around and shout out reminders and tendencies.
“Once I call the play, everybody starts communicating, ‘They might run this, they might run that,'” Shazier said. “Or they’ll go, ‘Hey, slide over. You? Bump over and get in better alignment.'”
It might seem chaotic, but it’s not. The proof is in the way the unbeaten Steelers are executing. Through two weeks, Pittsburgh has allowed just 474 total yards, fifth among teams that have played two full games. Sure, they’ve faced a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start (Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer) and another who got the starting assignment minutes before kickoff (Minnesota’s Case Keenum) but the Steelers are confident their success isn’t a mirage.
“Everybody can say, the quarterbacks or whatever, but we’re not really worrying about that,” Hargrave said. “We’re just going out there, playing, trying to get to the quarterback and stop the run.”
It’s worked expertly so far. Pittsburgh spent the better part of a 26-9 victory over Minnesota chasing Keenum around the pocket while limiting Vikings rookie running back Dalvin Cook to 64 yards on 12 carries, 25 of them coming on one run in the third quarter that set up Minnesota’s only touchdown. It’s telling that the unit’s long major mistake — and not the other 55 offensive plays Minnesota ran to largely minimal effect — is what stuck with the Steelers.
“‘Just’ 91 (team) rushing yards?” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “That’s still too much. We’ve got to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
And by that, Heyward meant the one that for so long stood among the gold standards in the NFL. The Steelers finished in the top 10 in yards allowed every season from 2000 to 2012, including five times when they were No. 1 overall. The precipitous slip began in 2013 as the men that served as the core of three Super Bowl appearances from 2005 to 2010 retired, were cut or moved on, including safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end Brett Keisel, cornerback Ike Taylor and Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
The rebuilding process took time. It also appears nearly complete. Head coach Mike Tomlin chose an interesting word when camp opened to describe the defense, saying it has the talent to be a “dominant” group. For a coach who rarely delves into the big picture, it was a startling pronouncement.
It may also end up being right. Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt has been a revelation in two games, picking up two sacks and an interception in the opener and swatting down a pass against Minnesota before leaving with what he hopes is a minor groin injury. Anthony Chickillo has done something considered largely impossible for most of the last 12 years — he leaped over James Harrison on the depth chart.
The 39-year-old Harrison dressed but did not play a single snap against Minnesota, staying on the sideline when Chickillo filled in for the injured Watt. Chickillo finished with four tackles on defense, another on special teams and a quarterback hit. Harrison’s day off is more a sign of Chickillo’s progress, one mirrored in other parts of the defense.
Defensive back Mike Hilton, who made the team off the practice squad, picked up eight tackles and even found a chance to drill Keenum on a well-designed blitz. Joe Haden, signed at the end of training camp, had another quiet afternoon. Burns knocked down a pass and recovered a fumble that effectively sealed the competitive portion of things.
All those splash plays start with word of mouth.
“When you have communication from multiple guys, there’s less room for error,” Heyward said.
There have been few mental mistakes so far. A trip to Chicago and another quarterback with issues —Mike Glennon — awaits. The Steelers understand it’s far too early to start thinking they’re back to their old selves. Maybe that’s because they’re just simply not that old. Defensive William Gay and defensive end Tyson Alualu were the only starters 30 or older against Minnesota, and Gay start at safety was nominal while Alualu was filling in for injured Stephon Tuitt. At the same time, Watt was the only rookie to get extensive snaps.
Pittsburgh is young but also experienced. After spending the offseason hearing about how it could be the weak spot compared to the “Killer B” offense, the reality could prove to be considerably different.
“It’s one of our big goals this year to be one of the best defenses,” Hargrave said. “If the (offense) is clicking and we’re clicking, that’s a great combination.”