The Pittsburgh Steelers posted a 25-year low in sack production last season when they only managed to tally 33 of them during the 2015 season. And to be frank, that was with a bit of a late-season up-tick, registering a season-high six sacks in the penultimate game alone, nearly a fifth of their total output in one game.
Since that time, the team’s leading sack producer over the course of the past two seasons, Jason Worilds, retired. He led or shared the team lead in sacks in each of those seasons, with eight the year prior and 7.5 a year ago.
So how exactly can the Steelers be expected to improve much, or even reach 40 sacks, a year after bottoming out on what had been a growing trend? The team’s sack figures have not been up to par since they last won a playoff contest.
Granted, they selected outside linebacker Bud Dupree in the first round of the previous draft, but not only are rookies rarely significant contributors for this defense, Dupree was not a high-volume pass rusher to begin with, which suggests that his impact will likely not be immediate.
I think it’s worthwhile to start by looking at what’s changed, beginning with the nickel pass rush. Brett Keisel was a major component of that look, but he only produced one sack last season, so it would be hard to say that his loss does much to damage the team’s chances of improving in that category.
Earlier in the year, when it wasn’t Keisel in the nickel, it was Cam Thomas, the starter at left defensive end for most of the year. He managed a half a sack, so that’s not a lot of production from two of the major components of the primary pass defense from last year.
In their place will be Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers’ second-round draft pick from a year ago. He entered the starting lineup in the last four games of the regular season and recorded his first sack in the process, and he is expected to take a major step forward. I would expect him to replicate and exceed the total sack output of himself, Keisel, and Thomas combined.
Next to him is Cameron Heyward, who recorded an impressive 7.5 sacks last year, and is expecting even more out of himself entering his fifth season. With the Steelers figuring to use more nickel this year, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him hold par or go beyond that mark.
At outside linebacker, we have a rotation of Jarvis Jones and James Harrison on the right side, who combined for 7.5 sacks in a combined less than 20 games played, the majority of which were not starts.
It would be hard not to project at least some growth from Jones this season, given how his career has gone up to this point. Harrison, meanwhile, is seemingly in the best shape of the last several years.
On the opposite side is Arthur Moats, who was actually fairly efficient in his pass rush, registering a career-high four in limited snaps. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him hover somewhere just below the double-digit mark.
Where the bulk of the difference will be made up, I believe, is in blitzes from the rest of the defense. There was not much production in the pass rush from the secondary at all last season, and only minor contributions from the inside linebackers. I expect that to change this year as this lineup becomes more settled and able to execute more fluidly.