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 finally boast a 10-sack player again for the first time since the 2010 season?
There has long been a strong correlation between teams with healthy sack totals and teams who have players who have achieved double-digit sacks on their own. That had certainly been the pattern for the Steelers in recent years, who had been in a worrying decline in sack production since they last had a 10-sack player in 2010.
Pittsburgh finally managed to buck that trend last season in dramatic fashion with 48 sacks, the third-best mark in the league, but the team did so with an all-in approach, as 16 different players contributed to that total.
In 2010, the Steelers finished 12-4, won the AFC North, and advanced to the Super Bowl, with both James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley posting double-digit sacks, and the team total fluttering around the 50-sack mark, as they did last season.
Since then, the team’s sack production had been on a steady four-year decline, posting a low of 33 sacks in 2014 before an uptick of 15 sacks changed the Steelers’ fortunes on the pass-rushing front. The question remains, however, whether the manner in which they got there can be sustainable over multiple seasons, or if they will have to get more production out of a smaller number of players.
If the Steelers continue to use a platoon approach to the outside linebacker position, then the best candidates will but Pittsburgh’s defensive ends, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. In his second season, Tuitt posted 6.5 sacks in 14 games, and certainly has the potential for more.
Heyward, meanwhile, has recorded 14.5 sacks over the course of the past two seasons and has hardly ever even missed a snap due to injury. His goal, as is Tuitt’s is the hit that double-digit mark, and I would not be the one to put it past them. it is achievable, to be sure.
It should also be within the grasp of second-year outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who logged the second-most snaps among outside linebackers last year and who will be far more along as a complete player and as a highly-conditioned athlete. He showed that he could get some sacks from his pure athletic ability, finishing with four, most of which came early on. With more playing time, knowledge, and endurance, there is no reason he can’t reach the mark.