Defense will lead the Steelers to glory

The Steelers offense should be explosive again this season — but that's not why they could win their seventh Lombardi Trophy. The defense will lead the way.

Ben Roethlisberger gets credit for leading the Steelers to three Super Bowl appearances and two wins. He has had a huge hand in the success, but the defense has led them in their best seasons.

In 2005, the first Super Bowl-winning season with Roethlisberger, the offense averaged 24.7 points per game, seventh in the NFL. The defense gave up 16 points per game, third in the league.

In the 2008 Super Bowl-winning season, the Steelers offense averaged 22.7 points per game, 17th in the NFL. The defense gave up 14.9 points per game, second in the league.

In the 2010 season, capped by a Super Bowl loss to Green Bay, the Steelers offense averaged 23.9 points per game, 12th in the NFL. The defense gave up 16.1 points per game, second in the league. The defense that allowed fewer points per game that season? The Green Bay Packers, who were "led" to the Super Bowl title by their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

As the NFL has become more offensive-minded, teams that win the Super Bowl still generally can stop the opponent from scoring. Last season, Tom Brady and the Patriots won the Super Bowl with an explosive offense ranked No. 3 in scoring (28.7 points per game). However, their defense ranked No. 1, allowing 16.4 points per game. The previous Super Bowl champion, Denver, was the same case. The Broncos offense scored only 22.2 points per game but their defense allowed only 17.9 points per game. Peyton Manning may have "led" his team to the Super Bowl title but the defense did most of the heavy lifting.

These numbers show the most trite cliche in sports — "defense wins championships" — still mostly applies in the offensive-minded NFL. Offense may sell tickets, but a team with a great offense and bad defense will struggle to win.

The 2017 Steelers look to be fielding their best defensive team since 2011, when they led the league by allowing 15.1 points per game. They finished 12-4 but lost in the playoffs to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in large part because their defense fell apart. Denver put up 29 points and 447 total yards, and Tebow, not exactly known for his passing prowess, threw for 316 yards.

The Steelers defense fell sharply out of the top 20 in 2013 and 2014 as a result of those championship defenses getting old. The Steelers restocked, and the results are showing. They returned to the top 10 in 2015 (19.9 ppg) and last season (20.6 ppg). Unsurprisingly, they were regarded as Super Bowl contenders again.

This season, the Steelers will again be on the short list of Super Bowl favorites. They certainly can win it, but not just because of Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and the offense. Those players, especially Roethlisberger, will get most of the credit if they win. But if they do pull it off, it will be because their defense finally is rebuilt from the Super Bowl years and is capable of leading the Steelers back to the top.

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