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: Is an improvement in pass-rushing productivity from the critical outside linebacker position to be expected in 2016?
For the longest time—at least, that is, in the aftermath of the Steel Curtain era—the success or failure of the Steelers’ defense was largely predicated upon their ability to generate a consistent pass rush from the outside linebacker position.
Of course, the success or failure of the rest of the defense goes a long way toward determining how well the pass rushers are able to perform; that much should go without saying. But by and large, the team’s best periods have tended to coincide with the implementation of their best pass-rushing duos.
Last season was somewhat of an outlier. In spite of the fact that they managed to record 48 sacks on the season—the third-most in the league—only a relative fraction of that was produced from their outside linebackers. In all, the position was responsible for 15 sacks: five from James Harrison; four apiece from Bud Dupree and Arthur Moats; and two from Jarvis Jones.
Expect that total to rise this season, not the least reason being a significant step forward from Dupree, the team’s first-round draft pick last season. He showed during his rookie year that he has the elite athleticism and physicality to get to the quarterback on natural ability alone. Naturally, he will be more effective when he knows what he’s doing. He should be relatively close to double digits.
I see no reason or Harrison to be any less productive in his final season than he has in the past two, unless his playing time declines. And if his playing time declines, then that will almost invariably mean that Jones’ performance is allowing that to happen—or even, dare I say, that one of the other young pass rushers has found his way into the rotation.
As much as Moats is cast as a sort of leftover, a spare part, he has undoubtedly been a meaningful contributor the past two seasons. He has recorded eight sacks—including two half-sacks—in that span and done so in less than 900 total snaps. And he has done it from both sides of the field.
Next year will be the second year under Keith Butler as he continues to figure out how best to use his various pieces. It’s also the second year under Joey Porter, and the second year under, presumably, the pass-rushing rotation. It’s almost inevitable that the general effectiveness will continue to improve.