The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Will the Steelers continue to blitz more under Keith Butler than they did in Dick LeBeau’s final seasons?
Last season, the Steelers defense under Keith Butler blitzed a considerable percentage more than they had in recent years. Depending on who you ask, and on what those people define as a blitz, the range of percentage can be between four and six percent.
Our charting shows that the team blitzed on nearly exactly a third of their passing downs, while other data shows that it was a bit more than that, above 36 percent. Our charts have the Steelers blitzing under LeBeau in 2014 roughly 28 percent of the time, so a bit more than five percent less. LeBeau also used his base 3-4 defense considerably more.
But LeBeau also only got 33 sacks out of their defense that year. Last year, the Steelers dramatically increased their output by nearly 50 percent, finishing the season with 48 sacks, their most in five seasons.
You tend not to fix the things that aren’t broken, and the Steelers’ blitzing is not broken. Of the teams’ 488 sacks last season, 31 of them came on plays on which they brought a blitz. In fact, much of the sacks came from the blitzers, unsurprisingly, with well more than a dozen of those sacks being produced by either the secondary or the inside linebackers.
The Steelers under Mike Tomlin have and are continuing to assemble one of the fastest and most athletic defenses in the league, and one would have to be a fool not to take advantage of the blitzing potential that exists from these athletic bodies.
I think no better argument can be made for continued blitzing than the fact that the Steelers recorded four sacks from Will Allen last season, who had never recorded one before. In spite of the fact that he has not yet recorded one in Pittsburgh, Mike Mitchell also has it on his resume.
While Tomlin and Butler would like to ‘get there with four’, the reality may be that they cannot do so efficiently enough to effect consistent pressure to play strong defense. The blitzing is the supplement to that, and as long as it continues to be effective, it makes sense to continue to employ it fairly liberally.