Is it real, or is it a mirage? Over the course of their final two games, both at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers tallied nine sacks, or a full 27 percent of their total sacks on the season.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs, the defense racked up six sacks and gained consistent pressure throughout the afternoon. On Sunday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, they were able to put Andy Dalton on his back for a stop three times against an offensive line that doesn’t like to see its quarterback on the ground. the Bengals only game up 23 sacks on the year, third-best in the league.
Is it finally happening? Is the Steelers pass rush finally emerging late in the season, just in time for the team to begin its playoff run, energized by a four-game winning streak throughout the month of December?
Certainly nobody would be more pleased if that were the case than the Steelers’ makeshift secondary, which is without its top two cornerbacks from the start of the season and is relying on scrap heap players who were cut by other teams to make significant contributions on a weekly basis.
There’s also the matter of whether or not safety Troy Polamalu will be able to return to the lineup in time for Saturday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, in which case veteran Will Allen will continue to start in his absence.
Allen may be coming off perhaps his best showing of the season, but one wonders how often, and how quickly, he could repeat that performance, especially against a team such as the Ravens that will be looking forward to testing him deep.
The Steelers, however, have been impressive in bringing the pass rush over the course of the last two games, even beyond tallying the nine sacks. The pressure has been fairly consistent, and they have landed hits that make quarterbacks question their decision making.
A big part of this has been the interior pass rush that Cameron Heyward has been able to bring on a more consistent basis. He may already have been the team’s best pass rusher—a rarity in a 3-4 defense—but he has been perhaps at the highest level of his career lately.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have also been getting pressure from their outside linebackers, James Harrison and Jason Worilds, who have combined to notch 4.5 sacks between them in the last two weeks.
And the Ravens may be hurting along their offensive line, particularly at the tackle positions, which will make it only more enticing to gain that outside pass rush, especially against a quarterback such as Joe Flacco, who can be prone to hold on to the ball.
In order for the Steelers to play defense at a level sufficient to assure that their offense can remain in the game, they are going to have to bring the pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the playoffs. This is something that they have struggled with for long stretches this season, but the hope is that the last two games are an indication of a turnaround.