Pittsburgh’s Four Man Pressure Key In 2016

Keith Butler has quickly earned the reputation of being a more aggressive defensive coordinator. And our charting illustrates that, blitzing more often with more defenders than Dick LeBeau did. But the foundation of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass rush still revolves around its four man rush.

It’s a notion Mike Tomlin and Butler have hammered home week after week last season. In October, Tomlin basically said it was the litmus test of every pass rush.

“Ultimately, I believe your ability to rush the quarterback is measured by your ability to rush with four…as we go forward, we obviously want to establish a good, consistent rush that’s steeped in a four man principle.”

He repeated himself after a late season loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

“We gotta be a group who is capable of blitzing effectively. We also gotta be a group who is capable of rushing the passer with four men effectively. Defenses that are good are defenses that have to be able to do both.”

And Butler affirmed that later in the week and noted the lack of a four man rush meant the team had to pressure more, leaving them vulnerable in the back end.

“We wanted to try to get pressure with our front four and we didn’t get as much pressure as we wanted to at the time…there were times we had a chance to get pressure with a four man rush and we didn’t. We have to do a better job with that. Getting more pressure and doing what we have to do to get more pressure. If we have to blitz a little more then I’m going to blitz a little bit more to get pressure.”

Let’s examine that quantitatively, using our charting from last season. We’ll break down the number of four and five man rushes Pittsburgh used in 2015. Our total number will be 648, the number of passes where we have an accounted number of rushers (some do not have a number for quick screens and RPOs, those will not be counted). The percentage of that 648 is listed directly below each category.

Four Man Rushes (Total) Four Man Rushes (No Blitzes) Five Man Rushes (Total) Five Man Rushes (No Blitzes) 2-3 Man Rushes 5-6 Man Rushes
363 327 224 31 44 241
56% 50.5% 34.7% 4.8% 6.8% 37.1%

The numbers are pretty clear. Even with the rise in blitzes under Butler, the base four man rush is by far the most common. This comes in the form of the DL and OLBs rushing in the team’s 2-4-5 nickel or out of their base, with three defensive linemen rushing with a a linebacker while the other drops into coverage.

Also, holy cow, look at how few straight five man rushes there were. That surprised me.

The data confirms the critical need for the team’s edge rush, even with the interior presences of Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and hopefully, Javon Hargrave. As we pointed out on Monday’s The Terrible Podcast, the outside linebacker group recorded just 15 sacks last season. In 2013, they collectively had only 14. Incredibly low numbers and ones that deviate from the norm.

Ideally, that numbers goes up a tick in 2016 as Bud Dupree takes another step. But if he stagnates, the Steelers pass rush is going to experience similar problems and it’ll force Butler’s hand to be more aggressive.

Long-term and at an early projection, it makes the position the biggest need. Even if Dupree breaks out, there isn’t a name you can count on to line up opposite. James Harrison is in his final year by his choice, Jarvis Jones maybe in his final year by team decision, and Arthur Moats is not an ideal starter option. Anthony Chickillo and Travis Feeney carry intrigue but currently, little of substance.

If Pittsburgh wants to play “their brand” of defense, Butler’s principles as its core still similar to LeBeau’s, the ability to generate a consistent four man rush needs a facelift in 2016.

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