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The Steelers Are Playing Like It’s The 1970s

The Pittsburgh Steelers revisited their 1970s uniforms this year, fitting for a throwback season of defense leading the team to success.

Gone are the “Killer Bs” of Ben Roethlisberger (out for the year after September elbow surgery), Le’Veon Bell (now bowling for the Jets) and Antonio Brown (out of the NFL completely in the midst of rape allegations), a trio of stars who made the Steelers one of the league’s most exciting and productive offenses. In their place are three unheralded rookies: quarterback Devlin “Duck” Hodges, who received a $1,000 signing bonus after winning a tryout, and middle-round picks RB Benny Snell and WR Diontae Johnson.

Not surprisingly, this downgrade has crippled their attack. They are 28th in yards, averaging just over 290 per game and on pace for 4,641 — nearly 2,000 less than last year. Pittsburgh is one of only four teams without a single 400-yard game on offense all year. The other three teams (Washington, Indianapolis, Denver) all have losing records and are a combined 14-25.

But the Steelers win anyway. They have taken seven of their past eight after an 1-4 start — one of the hottest winning streaks of the Mike Tomlin era, which includes two Super Bowl teams.

Teams that struggle this much on offense don’t usually fare this well. From 2000 through 2018, teams with between 4,500 and 5,000 total yards collectively amassed a winning percentage of 38.8 (739-1,165). This year’s 8-5 Steelers are beating that mark considerably heading into a critical Week 15 matchup with the 9-4 Buffalo Bills, the team most likely to win an AFC wild-card spot.

The key to Pittsburgh’s success is that while its offense is fifth-worst at gaining yards, its defense is fifth-best at preventing them. But the Steelers have still allowed 21 more yards per game than they’ve gained. So how are they defying football gravity?

The Steelers are not merely a stout defense but an explosive one, too. They lead the NFL in takeaways and sacks. Those skills were on display in their Week 14 victory at Arizona, when they dumped Kyler Murray five times and picked off three of his passes in the 23-17 victory.

“We have to get those turnovers,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “It’s the way we have to play.” Added cornerback Joe Haden, “Everyone thinks they’re going to be the one to make the play.”

Tomlin, a defensive coordinator before becoming the head coach of the Steelers in 2007, has been comfortable leaving the outcome of a game up to the defense. “Our (defensive) confidence is steeped in preparation and understanding each individual matchup,” Tomlin said after a win during the current streak.

But it helps to have stars, and the Steelers have them at every level of the defense. Minkah Fitzpatrick, acquired in a blockbuster trade after just two weeks of the season, leads the defensive backfield. The pass rush is spurred by T.J. Watt, who is fourth in the NFL with 12.5 sacks. And the linebacking corps was fortified in the draft with the addition of 10th overall pick Devin Bush, who leads the team in tackles and fumble recoveries.

Unfortunately, winning with defense is hardly a reliable championship path, even for a franchise known for its Steel Curtain. The best Steelers defense of the 1970s, and possibly of all-time, did not win the Super Bowl — and in fact didn’t even make it to the title game. Like the 2019 team, the 1976 Steelers started 1-4. That team then won nine straight games, yielding only 28 total points in the span while pitching five shutouts. They lost 24-7 in the AFC Championship game to eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland, despite surrendering only 220 yards to Ken Stabler and company.

But Pittsburgh fans can be encouraged by how the Steelers have already gone toe-to-toe with the highest scoring team in football, the Baltimore Ravens, losing 26-23 in overtime while holding the Ravens to just 277 yards, or over 100 less than Baltimore’s per-game average. And that was when Fitzpatrick was just getting integrated into the team. At that time, the Pittsburgh defense was hardly a juggernaut, having allowed more than 400 yards in three of its first four games. But no opponent has come close to reaching that number against the Steelers since October.

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Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.