Steelers’ defense gets passing grade

Steelers give defense a passing grade against Ravens, barely.

Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) sacks Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco during a game Sunday in Baltimore. Photo:Associated Press

PITTSBURGH – You wouldn’t want Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt grading your term paper.

Moments after the Steelers allowed only nine points in a win over the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday, Tuitt wasn’t grading on any kind of curve.

When asked if the Steelers had played their best defensively in the 26-9 thrashing of the Ravens, Tuitt was cynical.

“That’s not the best. That’s probably a C-plus,” Tuitt said. “I’m a tough grader.”

Tough indeed.

The only thing that might be tougher is scoring in regulation against the Pittsburgh defense.

After allowing nine points to the Ravens to improve to 3-1, Pittsburgh’s defense is giving up only 14.8 points per game, second to Buffalo through the first month of the NFL season. That’s even more impressive when you consider three of Pittsburgh’s first four games were played on the road, where the Steelers allowed nearly 21 points per game last year, including a 36-17 loss in the AFC Championship at New England.

The Steelers were dominant throughout much of the game at Baltimore, limiting the Ravens to 129 total yards and six first downs through three quarters. The Ravens finished with 288 total yards, but more than a third of that came in the final five minutes, after the outcome had long been decided.

Still, as Tuitt alluded, it wasn’t a perfect effort.

Though the Steelers had four sacks, seven quarterback hits and two interceptions, they also gave up runs of 23 and 50 yards to backup running back Alex Collins. Take those out of the equation and the Ravens ran for nine yards on their other 13 rushing attempts.

But after the Steelers allowed more than 200 yards rushing yards in a 23-17 overtime loss at Chicago, including 73 in the extra period. Those two long runs by the Ravens were on the mind of each Steelers defensive player.

“We’ve still got to improve. We gave up some runs we weren’t supposed to,” said defensive end Cam Heyward, who had two of the four sacks. “We’ve got to look in the mirror and own it. We take those two runs away, we’re not giving them anything. That’s what good defenses do. To get to that level, we have to get that off the film.”

Still, the defensive front is proving to be one of the best in football despite having played without some key players. Tuitt suffered an arm injury two plays into the regular-season opener at Cleveland and finally returned against Baltimore. Outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree also have missed at least one game.

The Steelers improved their depth on the defense, adding end Tyson Alualu and seeing growth from younger players such as outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo, who is tied with Heyward for the team lead in sacks with three.

Pittsburgh is second in the NFL in sacks with 15, three behind league-leader Jacksonville, which visits Heinz Field Sunday. The Steelers are on pace for 60 sacks, which would shatter the team record.

It’s what the Steelers have been expecting from their defense, in which they have heavily invested in during the draft. Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, Watt and Dupree, Heyward and cornerback Artie Burns each are first-round draft picks. Tuitt and free safety Sean Davis were second-round picks. Even the free-agent signings have high pedigrees. Alualu and cornerback Joe Haden were first-round picks of Jacksonville and Cleveland, respectively. Free safety Mike Mitchell was a second-round pick by Oakland.

The collection of talent is so good that linebacker James Harrison, the Steelers’ all-time leader in sacks, has barely played thus far and was inactive against the Ravens after missing practice Friday because of illness.

The Steelers haven’t been tested yet by a dynamic offense – Minnesota did score 29 points the week before being held to nine in Pittsburgh and had 34 the week after – but the defense is certainly trending in the right direction, regardless of the grade Tuitt gave.

“I think that’s definitely an example of what this defense can become,” said Shazier, who led the Steelers with 11 tackles, three pass defenses and an interception against the Ravens. “We talk about it all the time, how we want to be the No. 1 defense in the league. We can definitely be the best defense in the league.”

Odds and end zones

Shazier leads the Steelers with 37 tackles, nearly double that of teammate Vince Williams, who is second with 19. … The 17-point margin of victory was the largest for the Steelers in Baltimore against the Ravens. … Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of only 70.6 against Pittsburgh.