LATROBE, Pa. -- When their practice ended at a local high school earlier this week, Pittsburgh Steelers players walked through a gauntlet of adoring fans and boarded yellow school buses that were waiting single file to transport them back to their summer home at Saint Vincent College.
Outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, was among the last to leave the field, which wasn't surprising considering he draws the largest number of autograph-seekers as the team's most popular player. But it also meant he reached the parking lot just as many of the buses were pulling off.
Taking no chances, he banged several times on the paneled door of the bus at the back of the procession. After boarding, he quickly realized he had made a mistake. The bus was filled with reporters, not teammates, causing him to roll his eyes and audibly grunt.
Watt is friendly with reporters, but his favorite part of any interview is the end of it. It's not personal; he simply prefers to focus on his job, which is trying to be the best game-wrecker in football.
Interestingly, the bus ride was not the first time in recent months that Watt found himself in an unexpected and uncomfortable situation. The same happened at the end of last season, when the Steelers finished outside of the top six in yards allowed for the first time since Watt was drafted with the 30th pick in 2017. There wasn't just a fall-off. There was a free-fall from third overall in the category in 2020 to 24th in 2021.
Coach Mike Tomlin likes to say "the standard is the standard," and the defense fell far short of that -- not that anyone had to remind Watt. He's a historian of the unit's distinguished legacy, from the foundational era of Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell in the 1970s and '80s, to the passing of the torch to Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake in the 1990s, to Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel in the 2000s.
In fact, from 1972-2012 the Steelers ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed an astounding 30 times, finishing No. 1 overall nine times, with four taking place after Tomlin was hired in 2007. It's why Watt virtually cringes when people talk as if the primary motivation for this season's group is to pick up any slack while the team breaks in a new quarterback following the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, who helped the franchise reach three Super Bowls and win two titles in his 18 seasons. The motivation, Watt makes clear, is simpler than that. It is to play up to the standard that was established long before he and other defenders got to town.
"As a Pittsburgh Steeler defender, it's just that much more important for us to take pride in everyone that came before us and uphold the fact that the standard is the standard," Watt said during a lunch break this week. "At the end of the day, when the back is against the wall, when it's a two-minute drill, when the game is on the line, we want to be on the field. That's the mentality we have to have to be a hard-nosed defense, and that's why we're here to build that type of tradition, that type of standard for the season."
There is work to be done, for sure. The Steelers' per-game averages in rushing yards allowed (146.1) and points allowed (23.4) were the worst of the Tomlin era, and they gave up the second-most yards per game (361.1) since the coach arrived in '07. A unit that openly prides itself on being physical and stopping the run surrendered more ground yards than every other team. Seeing labels like "32nd" or "last" attached to the defense was alternately jarring and infuriating at the end of the season, but that reality is now motivating the Steelers.
"This is an organization that's based in defense," said Brian Flores, the former Dolphins coach who was brought in as a senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach. "Its roots and foundation is defense. It's stopping the run and rushing the passer and keeping the score down. Any outsider can look at that and, if you peel back the layers, that's who the Steelers are and that's who we want to be and what we want to be. But there's a process to doing that."
That process began during offseason workouts and has ramped up in training camp. Individually, the Steelers' core talent is outstanding with Watt, who tied the league's single-season sacks record with 22.5 last season, defensive end Cam Heyward, who is a returning All-Pro, and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was twice voted All-Pro before becoming the league's highest-paid safety in June. But help was needed, so they added tackle Larry Ogunjobi and linebacker Myles Jack via free agency, as well as end DeMarvin Leal in the draft. The return of tackle Tyson Alualu, who missed all but two games last season because of an ankle injury, also is a significant addition.
The challenge now is to get 11 to play as one, something that didn't happen a year ago when regular lineup changes due to injury resulted in poor run fits, blown assignments and missed tackles. The Steelers allowed six backs to rush for at least 100 yards, which is bad all by itself. But when you think about who those backs were -- well, it cuts even deeper. Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon are established stars, no doubt. But Alex Collins and Latavius Murray failed to reach the mark in any other game last season, D’Andre Swift managed it only one other time, and D’Onta Foreman had done so only once in his previous 22 games.
"When you look at the tape and see how many 100-yard rushers we allowed last season, it's completely unacceptable," Watt said. "If you want to be successful in this defense, you have to be known for stopping the run. You can't have teams running the ball in the end zone on you."
A significant change this year is along the sideline, where Teryl Austin was promoted to coordinator after three seasons as senior defensive assistant/secondary coach and Flores was brought in from Miami. They are respected minds whose backgrounds on defense should complement each other. Austin's strength comes from his long history as a secondary coach and coordinator, and Flores, who spent four seasons as the safeties coach with New England, also is widely respected for his work as a linebackers coach and de facto coordinator with the Patriots (no one with the franchise has held the DC title since 2017, the year before Flores took on the duties).
Predictability, there have been conversations between the two about Flores' view of the Steelers from the outside, notably strengths and vulnerabilities. Like every team, Pittsburgh does a lot of self-scouting, but it is always valuable to hear how others see you.
"It's a good perspective to have because sometimes you don't see your blind spots," Austin said. "It's been a good give and take. You don't want a guy who comes in and doesn't tell you anything. He's been more than open about what he sees and thinks."
For Flores, the goal is to help make the Steelers as successful as possible. As a former coordinator, he knows Austin's focus is often big picture, with position coaches responsible for refining and polishing up the detail work. That suits him well.
"At the end of the day, football is football is football," Flores said. "The terminology might be different, but techniques and fundamentals are pretty straightforward and standard. And then the situational awareness that I've learned in other places I've been -- there's a high value on that here. Red zone. Two minute. Stopping the run. Just playing sound, sound football and forcing the opponent to beat you. When I hear that, it's right in my wheelhouse. I know how to coach that, that and that, and if there's something a little bit different, I try to learn about it and get it coached the way we want to get it coached here."
"I was down there in Miami with Flo for a few months (in 2019 before being traded to Pittsburgh), and the thing I noticed about him was that he was real big on details," Fitzpatrick said. "He didn't just coach them, he enforced them. I feel like that's what we needed from last year."
Heyward describes the synergy between Flores and Austin as "eye-opening". As he speaks, there is an energy that seems to accompany his words. It appears Week 1 can't get here fast enough. He knows everyone is focused on the quarterback situation -- where Mitchell Trubisky is expected to win the starting job over Mason Rudolph and rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett -- and whether the defense will be able to carry the load during the transition period. But his focus, like that of Watt, is much more simplistic.
"When you come to the Pittsburgh Steelers, you're known for your defense," Heyward said. "That wasn't the case last year, so going forward it's put up or shut up. If we're going to win these games, it's got to come down to us. But that comes with the standard we are charged with upholding. It's not pressure. It's what's expected."
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