Are NFL teams allowed to forfeit games? Is that still a thing? If so, maybe the Cowboys should consider that this week. Not because they should be tanking, but just because it falls dangerously close to the definition of cruel and unusual punishment to throw either Garrett Gilbert or Cooper Rush out there for their first career start against a defense that will have T.J. Watt lining up against Terence Steele on every snap.
The edge rusher that, in another universe, has a star on his helmet is off to yet another good year. After posting double-digit sacks each of the last two years, Watt is on track to make it a three-peat with 6.5 sacks at this point; only three others in the NFL have more than that. But the Steelers defense, which ranks second in defensive DVOA, is more than just Watt.
They lead the NFL in sacks with 30 total, and have ten different players with at least one sack on the season. Their 13 takeaways is also the second-highest figure in the league, and nine different players have intercepted at least one pass this year. If you were wondering, that’s more than the Dallas defense had all of last year.
So what’s the reason for this dominant defense? Coordinator Keith Butler is certainly a big part of it. He’s been running the defense since 2015, and before that he was the Steelers linebackers coach for 12 seasons under legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the godfather of the zone blitz. It’s not surprising, then, that Butler has made extensive use of the blitz in his defenses since taking over. Currently, Pittsburgh ranks third in blitz rate, sending an extra rusher on a whopping 42.3% of all dropbacks. As a result, they lead the league in pressures and are second in pass rush win rate.
But for as good a play-caller as Butler has been, the Steelers also benefit from having a pretty good roster too. Watt is the big name, and he leads all edge rushers in pass rush win rate. Stephon Tuitt, who ranks tenth among interior defensive linemen in pass rush win rate, is tied for second on the team in sacks with six. Bud Dupree, the Steelers’ other edge rusher, is tied with Tuitt and has benefitted from offenses focusing so much on Watt.
The secondary is also pretty loaded. At 31-years-old, Joe Haden is showing no signs of slowing down, giving up completions on just 53.7% of passes thrown his way and allowing just 38 yards after the catch. Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton, who rotate in on nickel and dime packages, haven’t been targeted much but have been stingy when thrown at, rarely allowing big plays. The two safeties, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, have also been incredibly stout in coverage, with Fitzpatrick’s ball-hawk skills taking away the middle of the field while Edmunds offers upside as a blitzer.
The biggest weaknesses on this defense are cornerback Steven Nelson and the linebackers. Nelson is the most targeted corner on the team, and is giving up an average 60.9% completion rate, but his 15.6 yards per completion is most on the team, as is his 178 yards allowed after the catch. Nelson also has allowed five touchdowns against him, which is equal to the amount the rest of this secondary is credited with.
At the linebacker spot, Pittsburgh has just been unlucky with injuries. Everyone knows about Ryan Shazier’s tragic spinal injury, and after spending the last two years recovering from it, he decided to retire prior to the start of this year. That left veteran Vince Williams and second-year player Devin Bush as the top two guys, but Bush tore his ACL three weeks ago. That’s pushed Robert Spillane into a starting role unexpectedly. Spillane went undrafted in 2018 and spent his rookie year with the Titans before going to the Steelers last year, alternating between the practice squad and special teams.
Now, he’s started the last two games and has 12 tackles, a pick six, and a fumble recovery to his name in that span. Spillane hasn’t been a liability by any stretch, but it’s also a small sample against two run-heavy offenses. His youth and inexperience could be a weakness - one of the very few - for the Cowboys to exploit.
Of course, that all depends on who will be under center between Garrett Gilbert and Cooper Rush. Neither of those options inspire much confidence, but it’s that kind of year for the Cowboys. They’re an inept offense right now, a perfect example of how losing your star quarterback can hamstring an offense permanently. They have a whole lot of weaknesses, and going against a defense with very few of them it’ll be tough sledding. Sunday should be rough in Dallas.