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Steelers 27, Bengals 3: Steelers defense keeps getting better

The Steelers won a game for the first time this season Monday night, beating the Bengals 27-3 at Heinz Field.

In doing so, the Steelers allowed three points or less for the first time since Week 16 of the 2011 season, when they blanked the St. Louis — yes, the St. Louis — Rams 27-0 in Pittsburgh.

In other words, since Before Tebow.

No, this doesn’t mean that the Steelers defense is once again the championship unit that it was for about a decade before noodle-armed Tim Tebow signaled the end of that era in the 2011 AFC wild-card game.

It does mean that despite not having a win to show for it until Monday, this young and growing defense has shown progress for four straight weeks.

In Week 1, the Steelers defense was inept against Tom Brady.

In Week 2, the Steelers had four sacks and allowed just seven points in the first half before Russell Wilson did Russell Wilson things in the second half.

In Week 3, the Steelers defense played well enough to beat the 49ers. T.J. Watt recovered a fumble with less than seven minutes left and the Steelers leading. But the defense was asked to make one extra stop because of a James Conner fumble, and Jimmy Garoppolo threw his first touchdown pass of the game to give the 49ers the 24-20 win.

The Steelers defense still can be solved by the likes of Brady, Wilson and Garoppolo.

But not Andy Dalton.

The Steelers sacked Dalton eight times and limited him to 171 yards with one interception. It was the first time the Steelers have had eight sacks in a game since Week 11 of the 2016 season in a 24-9 win at Cleveland, according to Pro Football Reference. It was only the 12th eight-sack game in Steelers history. Cameron Heyward led the way with 2.5 sacks. Watt added 1.5 sacks and also recovered a fumble on a Bud Dupree strip sack. Devin Bush had his first career sack. Javon Hargrave and Tyson Alualu had one sack each.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the Steelers having nine first-round picks on their defense. Some of the talking heads have said eight, but it’s actually nine, and none of those pundits have pointed out that the Steelers are just one of two teams to draft a defensive player in the first round for seven straight years.

That streak will end next year because the Steelers traded their 2020 first-round pick, although that deal yielded one more first-rounder. Minkah Fitzpatrick was drafted 11th by the Dolphins in 2018 and he’s one of five top-11 picks on the Steelers defense.

Bush is the only one of those who the Steelers drafted. Barron, who intercepted Dalton in the end zone Monday night, was drafted seventh by the Buccaneers in 2012. Joe Haden was drafted seventh by the Browns in 2010 and Alualu was drafted 10th by the Jaguars in 2010.

Of the 20 players who have taken snaps on defense for the Steelers this season, 14 were drafted in the first three rounds.

That kind of pedigree, along with the improved results on the field, suggest that there really could be something cooking with this defense.

The unit is likely to face a sterner test Sunday at home against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.  The Steelers haven’t really dealt with Jackson yet because he didn’t become the starter last year until two weeks after the Ravens and Steelers met for the second time. The second-year quarterback is no Brady or Wilson, but he’s probably risen higher than Dalton on the quarterback pecking order.

Mason Rudolph climbed a few rungs on that ladder Monday by completing 24 of 28 passes for 229 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was aided by a Randy Fichtner brainstorm that featured Jaylen Samuels in the wildcat and a bunch of tosses and sweeps that helped the Steelers get the ball moving on the ground.

Even though the Ravens (2-2) have lost two in a row, however, this isn’t John Harbaugh’s first rodeo. Unless Fichtner adds a few wrinkles, the Steelers’ new offensive look won’t catch the Ravens by surprise.

The Ravens have allowed 73 points over the last two weeks against former Big 12 quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield. The track record of Big 12 quarterbacks drafted by NFL teams has been so lackluster that Mahomes (60) and Mayfield (31), both in their second year as starters, already are among the top 10 on the list of touchdown passes thrown by quarterbacks drafted from that conference.

Rudolph is on that list, too, with six touchdown passes. He’s rapidly closing in on Landry Jones (8) for 16th place. Can he do to the Ravens defense what Mahomes and Mayfield have done? He’ll at least need to take another step forward Sunday, as will the Steelers defense. The Steelers might only be a game out of first in the AFC North, but they’re still a 1-3 team with little margin for error.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

 

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