The Pittsburgh Steelers' identity has, in recent years, been defined by three men: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. The team's calling card has shifted from a bruising, defense-forward attack to that of the most dangerous offense in the NFL when all three stars are healthy and on the same page. That has certainly remained the case this season, with Pittsburgh's offense ranking seventh in yards per game, Bell and Brown both easily eclipsing 1,000 yards and Roethlisberger ending the regular season with a 95.4 passer rating.
But the Steelers didn't get to their 11-5 record and another AFC North title on offense alone. This year has seen the renaissance of Pittsburgh's defense. And it played a major role in the Steelers' 30-12 defeat of the Miami Dolphins in Sunday's Wild Card round game. It's also why Pittsburgh is an even greater threat to the Kansas City Chiefs next week, as the team plots a path to its seventh Super Bowl championship.
The Steelers wrapped up the regular season with 38 sacks -- boasting the most in the league from Weeks 11 to 17 -- 13 interceptions, and have forced at least one turnover per game since Week 7 against the New England Patriots.
The impressive performance continued into the postseason as Pittsburgh's defense put on a variable master class against the Dolphins and quarterback Matt Moore. In the team's previous meeting (a Steelers loss at Miami in Week 6), Pittsburgh's defense had no sacks or takeaways. This time, it took down Moore five times, hit him nine times and forced three turnovers. Two were Moore fumbles on sacks by linebacker James Harrison and safety Mike Mitchell, and another was an interception by linebacker Ryan Shazier. Those turnovers led to 10 points.
Further, the defense did a great job containing Miami's boom-or-bust running back, Jay Ajayi. In Week 6, Ajayi rushed for 204 yards and two scores on 25 carries. This time, he was limited to only 33 yards on 16 carries and an average of 2.1 yards per carry. Linebackers Harrison and Lawrence Timmons were major contributors to Ajayi's bad day, combining on 24 tackles on the day, including three for a loss. This was in addition to the pair also terrorizing Moore, combining for 3.5 sacks.
Pittsburgh's offense did its job Sunday, without question. Bell recorded a franchise postseason-high of 167 rushing yards to go with two rushing scores. Brown had two touchdowns of his own and 124 yards. Roethlisberger had only five incompletions on his 18 pass attempts, and though two were interceptions, his defense bailed him out; neither resulted in Miami points and one, late in the first quarter, was negated by Harrison forcing the fumble on a sack of Moore and Stephon Tuitt's recovery. Those series of events, in particular, highlight just how important Pittsburgh's defense has become and just how much improvement has taken place over the course of the year.
It also is an important turning point for the Steelers, who have had issues quickly developing their young defensive players in the past, but have recently figured out the right formula. Shazier was responsible for the interception, linebacker Bud Dupree has the Steelers' second-most sacks, cornerback Artie Burns has three interceptions on the year, safety Sean Davis is an emerging playmaker and defensive lineman Javon Hargrave has started 13 of Pittsburgh's 16 regular-season games. All of those players have three or fewer years of NFL experience.
Pittsburgh has shifted from an offensive team to a well-rounded one as the season went on. And it's the well-rounded teams that typically have the most postseason longevity. Remaining opponents don't need to only fear and focus on the Steelers' offense anymore, but on everything the team does. Pittsburgh can win leaning on its offense, on its defense and on both.