Over the course of this offseason, we have gotten several glimpses of the idea that the Pittsburgh Steelers defense under Keith Butler will be doing away with some of the two-gapping mentality traditionally employed by their defensive line in the base 3-4 alignment, which has become a staple of some of the great defenses of the past generation.
One of the biggest glimpses into this increased focus on one-gap, penetrating tendencies for the front line was highlighted yesterday by Alex Kozora in honing in on a conversation that defensive end Cameron Heyward had with Robert Klemko recently with The MMQB.
The mounting evidence is, in fact, becoming obvious, with Heyward and several of his fellow linemen working with Ted Cotrell this offseason “to tutor the group on winning one-on-ones”. Heyward told Klemko that the defensive linemen are “making a conscious effort to make sure we’re optimizing our chances to get to the quarterback”, which seems contrary to what we’ve seen under most of Dick LeBeau’s tenure as defensive coordinator.
But it hasn’t always been that way, and in fact there have been some fairly successful pass-rushing defensive end during the Steelers’ 3-4 era. Back in the 80s, there was an undersized undrafted free agent by the name of Keith Willis.
Scouted by Bill Nunn in 1982, Willis emerged prominently in the following season, posting an eye-popping 14 sacks. A few seasons later, in 1986, he eclipsed the double-digit barrier again by posting 12 sacks. He ranks fairly high on the Steelers’ all-time sack leaders board with 59.
Heyward hopes to be the next Steelers defensive end to eclipse the double-digit sack mark after he posted a career-best 7.5 last year. Allowing the line to one-gap more and maximize their pass-rushing opportunities rather than worrying about opening lanes for the linebackers will be a boon in his pursuit of that goal.
And the reality is that it’s simply the right time for this. The Steelers now for the first time in a while have a concentration of talent and athleticism along the defensive line with Heyward, the penetrating Steve McLendon at nose tackle, and second-year defensive end Stephon Tuitt anticipated to make a significant jump and grow into his vast physical assets.
While 3-4 defensive ends have found success more recently than Willis—Aaron Smith twice posted eight-sack seasons, though never again surpassed 5.5—the intersection of opportunity and necessity make it imperative that the Steelers get more pass-rushing production from their defensive front.
The Steelers posted a 25-year low sack total last year—that much we know. We also know that the defensive line has talent and potential, and that they are more equipped than most lines in recent team history to generate pressure independently if given the opportunity.
The logical choose would be to allow them to do so with greater frequency. With teams exploiting Pittsburgh’s reluctance to go to their sub-packages, and with the fact that there is so much currently unsettled on the defensive side of the ball, it makes a lot of sense on the surface to, in a sense, let players take care of their own business.