With a season-high seven sacks in the regular season finale, the Pittsburgh Steelers have closed out the year putting up 48 sacks on the season, which is by far the most that they have had since 2010, the last time that they have won a playoff game. It is the first time since then that they have topped 40 sacks in a single season.
The 48 sacks is tied for the third-most that the Steelers have had in a single year since 2004, the year that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau took over the reins. Of course, LeBeau was not retained after last season.
Former linebackers coach Keith Butler was promoted to defensive coordinator this season, a position that he has never served previously, and he helped raise the Steelers’ sack total up by 15 from last year’s 33 sacks, which was a 20-year low. That is an impressive turnaround, matched only by the 2008 team’s jump from one year to the next.
The 2008 championship team recorded 51 sacks, the most of the LeBeau-era defense, just a year after posting only 36 in Mike Tomlin’s first season as head coach. The defense was under 40 sacks for two years after posting 47 during the 2005 championship season. They also posted 49 sacks in 2009, though they just barely missed the playoffs that year after an improbable five-game losing streak mid-season.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Steelers’ performance against the pass rush this season is just how well they have been able to do it—albeit inconsistently—without any elite, or even significantly above average players at the premium pass-rushing positions.
Among the outside linebackers, James Harrison, he of 37 years, led the group with five sacks, three of which came in one game, in a blowout. Arthur Moats tallied one in the season finale to tie Bud Dupree with four.
The primary pass rush this season came from the defensive end position, as the two highest sack-getters this year were their starting defensive ends, Cameron Heyward—who absolutely deserves a Pro Bowl nomination for his work this year—and second-year player Stephon Tuitt.
Heyward led the team for the second straight season with seven sacks, this time holding the outright lead, but Tuitt made it interesting, closing out the regular season finale with two sacks to bring his total up to 6.5 for the season. Between the two, they accounted for 13.5 of the Steelers’ 48 sacks, or 28 percent.
Butler’s creative and frequent blitzes have played a big role in the Steelers being able to put up quality pass-rushing numbers this year when they did not necessarily have the pure talent to be an elite team in that category.
Pittsburgh managed to get major contributions from the inside linebackers and from the secondary on the pass rush this year, with four players from each group recording at least one sack. Of the most note was the four sacks recorded by Will Allen this year, including one in the season finale. He never had a sack in the first 11 years of his career until 2015.