This past offseason, we spent a lot of time discussing which Pittsburgh Steelers defender would become the team’s premier pass rusher this season. Would Jarvis Jones finally develop into a consistent edge rushing presence? Could Bud Dupree burst onto the scene as a force at outside linebacker? Would James Harrison rediscover the fountain of youth as the preseason seemed to suggest?
The answer to all three questions is no…and yes. None of those three have become dominant pass rushers through the first quarter of the season, but the trio and Arthur Moats have combined with a host of fellow Pittsburgh defenders to give the Steelers a fearsome pass rush.
Pittsburgh presently has 14 sacks, the third best mark in football and a nod to Keith Butler’s creative pressure schemes. The only teams with more are the Rams (17), Packers (17), and Broncos (18), and you can probably think of a pass rusher or two from each of those teams that strikes fear in the hearts of any opposing linemen.
Not so in Pittsburgh, where nine different players have notched at least one sack this season. By comparison, only ten different defenders had at least one sack all of last season for Pittsburgh. Also worth noting, through four games last year, the Steelers had just seven sacks, half the number that has been produced in 2015.
Stephon Tuitt leads the way with 3.5, slightly ahead of Cameron Heyward and Dupree with two apiece. Moats has one of his own and split another with Tuitt, while Will Allen, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, Harrison, and Sean Spence all have one. Jones, the only name of note without one, has played the best football of his career to this point in the season, although he is still average at best as a pass rusher.
Butler deserves much of the credit, thanks to his creative blitz packages, some of which were employed by Dick LeBeau, others of which he’s added a wrinkle or two. Against Baltimore, Butler sent blitzes on eight straight pass plays during Baltimore’s final two possessions of the fourth quarter, an aggressive approach that came within about half-a-second from winning the game for Pittsburgh. With the Ravens facing a 3rd-and-ten from their own 48 yard line, William Gay busted into the pocket unblocked to nail Joe Flacco a split-second after the quarterback released an excellent 20-yard toss to Kamar Aiken to move the chains.
Despite the failure of that one play, Butler’s desire to stay aggressive and go after a stationary passer like Flacco kept the quarterback uncomfortable all game. The Ravens offense was never able to get into a rhythm, and if not for a few unthinkable gaffes by Josh Scobee and the coaching staff, the defense would have earned Pittsburgh one heck of an early season victory.
At their current pace, the Steelers would reach 56 sacks by the end of the season, which would be a franchise record (they have recorded 55 twice). The last time they had 50 was in 2008. Last year, the total was a dismal 33, a number the Steelers have been right around over the past five years. This year the players are better, the scheme is better, and the personnel usage has garnered the results that have been missing in Pittsburgh.
There will be better offensive lines and harder quarterbacks to sack than what the Steelers have faced through four weeks, but San Diego likely won’t be one of them. Rivers typically gets the ball out quickly, but he’s an extremely stationary quarterback who likes to throw from the pocket. Pittsburgh should have no trouble making him uncomfortable, especially considering the Chargers could be without two of their five starters along the offensive line, while two others are listed as questionable. I expect Butler to be creative with stunts and twists up front, as well as bringing delayed pressure to the A-gaps and attempt to flush Rivers from the pocket.
Remember, an average secondary can look pretty good behind a fearsome pass rush, a fact Butler and co. have been utilizing to their advantage all season long. Expect more of the same on Monday night.