By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts steel magnate
You read it here first: Pittsburgh's defense in 2008 is every bit as good as the Steel Curtain of the 1970s.
And in some cases it's even better – especially considering the way the game has evolved in the 30 years since the Steel Curtain last smothered the earth.
Some might consider it a bit of heresy, at least those who put more stock in names and legends than they do in actual on-field production.
The names Harrison, Farrior and Polamalu, the three defenders the 2008 Steelers will send to the Pro Bowl, just don't ring with the same air of intimidating authority as Ham, Lambert, Greene and Blount, the four defenders the 1970s Steelers sent to the Hall of Fame.
And few admire the Steelers of the 1970s more than we do.
But the data, the Cold, Hard Football Facts, clearly make a strong case that the 2008 Steelers are every bit as solid, in some cases just plain better, than any of the defenses from the Steel Curtain Era.
(For the sake of this exercise, the Steel Curtain Era is the period from Pittsburgh's first playoff appearance in 1972 to its last Super Bowl championship of the era in 1979.)
Here's a look at how this year's team stacks up in several key areas against the most legendary defense in league history.
The 2008 Steelers stuff the run better than any team of the Steel Curtain Era.
The Steelers surrender just 75.8 YPG on the ground this year – easily besting the 106.8 YPG surrendered by the 1979 Steelers, the stingiest run defense of the Steel Curtain era.
But that comparison is not fair to the teams of the 1970s. After all, NFL offenses ran the ball far more frequently back then than they do today. So naturally, they ran for more yards. A better comparison is to size up the defenses in terms of yards per attempt.
Again, the 2008 Steelers come out on top – but only by the slimmest statistical margin. This year's team allows opponents a mere 3.215 yards per rush attempt, edging out the 1976 Steelers, the best of the Steel Curtain defenses, who surrendered a miserly 3.223 yards per rush attempt. Essentially, it's a statistical dead heat, with a slight advantage to this year's squad.
Steelers defenses vs. the run
2008 Steelers – 3.215 YPA
1976 Steelers – 3.223 YPA
1979 Steelers – 3.38 YPA
1973 Steelers – 3.39 YPA
1974 Steelers – 3.41 YPA
1978 Steelers – 3.46 YPA
1977 Steelers – 3.49 YPA
1972 Steelers – 3.85 YPA
1975 Steelers – 4.23 YPA
The Steel Curtain was pretty darn good against the run.
But it was utterly dominant against the pass. In fact, it was in its historic ability to stifle passing attacks that the Steel Curtain distinguished itself as one of the great defenses in history. Back in that era, offenses generally averaged about 6.6 yards per pass attempt, about the same here in 2008 (6.5).
But opponents never came close to that average against the Steel Curtain. In its worst year (1977), Pittsburgh's defense limited opponents to a meager 5.52 yards per attempt through the air.
But even measured against these legendary defenses, and even though they play here in this era of pass-happy offenses, the 2008 Steelers look right at home when compared to the Steel Curtain. And that's no small feat, considering that the Steel Curtain was perhaps the most consistently great pass defense in modern NFL history.
Steelers defenses vs. the pass
1974 Steelers – 4.32 YPA
1975 Steelers – 4.64 YPA
1973 Steelers – 4.66 YPA
2008 Steelers – 4.70 YPA
1976 Steelers – 5.0 YPA
1972 Steelers – 5.0 YPA
1979 Steelers – 5.34 YPA
1978 Steelers – 5.42 YPA
1977 Steelers – 5.52 YPA
Yards per attempt is probably the best way to compare pass defenses from different eras because it's been fairly consistent through the years. As the rules have changed, passing yards and passer ratings have risen dramatically, so it's hard to compare teams from different eras using those measures. Back in 1977, for example, the league-wide passer rating was a 60.9. This year, the league-wide passer rating is on pace for a record 82.9.
Stats are nice. But there's only one defensive measure that really matters: how many points opponents put on the scoreboard.
Again, the 2008 Steelers look right at home when measured against the Steel Curtain. It's a surprising result when you consider how easy it was to play defense in the 1970s, and how difficult it is to play defense here in 2008.
The 2008 Steelers, for example, lead the league allowing 13.7 PPG. That would have been good enough only for fifth in the league in both 1976, the best year of the Steel Curtain, and in 1977, the depths of the NFL's Dead Ball Era
Scoring defense (rank in parenthesis)
1976 Steelers – 9.9 PPG (1st)
1975 Steelers – 11.6 PPG (2nd)
1978 Steelers – 12.2 PPG (1st)
1972 Steelers – 12.5 PPG (2nd)
1974 Steelers – 13.5 PPG (2nd)
2008 Steelers – 13.7 PPG (1st)
1973 Steelers – 15.0 PPG (8th
1979 Steelers – 16.4 PPG (5th)
1977 Steelers – 17.4 PPG (7th)
Another factor to consider when sizing up scoring defenses is the effect of field goals. Back in 1977, only two kickers converted more than 75 percent of their field goal attempts. This year, 32 of the 39 kickers who have attempted a field goal have converted 75 percent or more of their attempts.
Pittsburgh's opponents this year have converted 23 of 25 field goals (92 percent). Back in 1976, Pittsburgh's opponents converted just 14 of 24 field goals (58 percent).
Had the 1976 Steelers, the best of the Steel Curtain defenses, faced kickers as good as those today, they would have surrendered about 11.8 PPG, a difference of nearly 2 points per game from field goals alone.
We don't put a lot of stock in total defense or total offense – i.e., yards allowed or yards gained. Generally speaking, these indicators do not always have a very high correlation to success the way some other stats do.
But total defense does give us an easy-to-understand comparison. And, once again, the 2008 Steelers stack up fairly well against the legendary Steel Curtain. In fact, they're easily better than the 1978 and 1979 Steelers defenses – the two members of the Steel Curtain forced to play with modern rules that made it easier for offenses to move the ball.
Total defense (rank in parenthesis)
1974 Steelers – 219.6 YPG (1st)
1976 Steelers – 237.36 YPG (1st)
1973 Steelers – 237.43 YPG (4th)
2008 Steelers – 239.1 YPG (1st)
1978 Steelers – 260.5 YPG (3rd)
1975 Steelers – 261.5 YPG (4th)
1977 Steelers – 263.7 YPG (7th)
1979 Steelers – 266.9 YPG (2nd)
1972 Steelers – 269.4 YPG (8th)
Given the radical ways the league has changed in the three decades since the Steel Curtain ruled, perhaps the fairest comparison is to look at how teams stacked up against their competition in a given year.
In this case, it's hard to do better than the 2008 Steelers, who rank No. 1 in both scoring defense and total defense. Here's a look at how the Steelers stack up in each category year to year.
Scoring and total defense (respectively)
2008 Steelers – 1st and 1st
1979 Steelers – 5th and 2nd
1978 Steelers – 1st and 3rd
1977 Steelers – 17th and 7th
1976 Steelers – 1st and 1st
1975 Steelers – 2nd and 4th
1974 Steelers – 2nd and 1st
1973 Steelers – 8th and 4th
1972 Steelers – 2nd and 8th
Sure, the Steel Curtain might have been the most consistently great defense in NFL history. They played well over nearly an entire decade. But only twice did they lead the league in scoring, and only twice did they lead the league in total defense. And only once, in their very best year of 1976, did they match the 2008 Steelers and lead the league in both categories.
But the NFL has changed dramatically in the 30 years since the Steel Curtain dominated offenses. Put most simply, it's much harder to play defense today than it was in the 1970s. So to stack up well in any way today is tough. To stack up well in every way is a great testament to the 2008 Steelers, a team carrying on one of Pittsburgh's proudest traditions, and doing it as well as any who have come before them.