The Pittsburgh Steelers set forth into their offseason with two primary missions: find more turnovers, and improve the pass rush.
The efforts toward the former are ongoing as they adapt to employing more Cover 2 schemes. We got a glimpse of their offseason work in improving the pass rush last evening, however, as the defense notched six sacks against the Green Bay Packers.
And much of it came in their preferred manner, with a straight four-man rush, courtesy of their outside linebackers. James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, and Bud Dupree each notched a sack during the game.
Dupree also had another sack negated by an offside penalty prior to the snap. One could argue that he should have been credited with a half sack on yet another.
The three other sacks were produced via the blitz, with one coming from safety Shamarko Thomas and two from inside linebacker L.J. Fort and Ian Wild, who served as an inside linebacker during the game due to the accumulation of injuries at the position.
It was on Wild’s sack that Dupree could have fairly been credited, with Wild serving in coverage until he saw an opening to rush. Dupree, however, was winning his match from behind and was at the quarterback nearly at the same time.
The six sacks on the afternoon tripled the team’s preseason total at that point, after they combined for just three during the first two games. Harrison recorded a sack in the second preseason game, stripping the ball out as he did so, although the Steelers were unable to recover that loose ball.
Given the multitude of unknowns surrounding both Jones and Dupree, two former first-round edge rushers, to see them find some success against the quarterback in particular is encouraging, even if, admittedly, even Harrison’s sack came against a reserve.
The variety with which the Steelers managed to generate those sacks in particular has to be a bit vindicating for defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who is tweaking the system run with great success by his predecessor.
Under his vision, Butler is hoping to generate most of his pressure without the aid of the blitz, rather relying on winning one-on-one battles in order to get into the backfield. Harrison, Jones, and Dupree all managed to check that box.
But blitzing is certainly not a forgotten aspect of the defense, and Butler’s blitz schemes produced two of them with Thomas and Fort each winning off the defensive left edge to record their quarterback takedowns.
While I hasten to add that there are no conclusions to be drawn from the preseason, there is no question that it is better to see pass rushing productivity than not. It is better to see Jones successfully beat an offensive lineman one-on-one for a sack than not. It is better to see Thomas get home on the blitz than not.
It is, at the very least, proof of concept for some of the key aspects of Butler’s, and the Steelers’ defensive game plan in 2015 as they seek to support a potentially explosive offense that is set to lead the way.