James Harrison. Arthur Moats. Jarvis Jones.
Good football players. Good people. Internally, a trio the Pittsburgh Steelers have confidence in.
But none have the chance of reaching the heights Bud Dupree was supposed to take this season. And for this defense, that is a big problem.
Dupree was the only outside linebacker on this team with a chance to have a breakout season. Those days for Harrison are long gone, Jones’ unlikely to exist, and Moats’ window long been shut. That doesn’t mean they can’t, won’t, generate a pass rush. Harrison is still spry, Jones has put on genuinely better tape in the preseason, and Moats is coming off the best camp he’s ever had in Pittsburgh.
But at best, their seasons will be respectable. Not spectacular. They’re regional managers at a McDonald’s. Totally fine but nothing that will impress.
Dupree had that excitement. That sizzle, that flash, grounded in a strong rookie year for all he dealt with. The jump to the NFL, playing outside linebacker, with a dedicated coach, full time, and being spent over 23 total games. Only four sacks, and some of those were freebies by NFL standards, but there was promise. He was far from overwhelmed logging so many snaps. He was an active and energetic pass rusher but an atom bouncing around without purpose, unable to fully harness that potential. The goal this season was for him to discover that go-to move, making the rest of his arsenal all the more effective.
That plan never even got off the ground. Dupree made it through the first three practices, only one in pads, before sitting out. He attempted to come back for Days Nine and Ten, later regretting his haste, and hasn’t practiced since.
The Steelers finished third in the NFL with 48 sacks. That looks sparkling but Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin, and all of us on this site have been open about the need to create pressure with a four man rush. This defense, any defense really, is at its best when they can rush four, drop seven, and still get after the quarterback.
In 2015, that didn’t happen nearly enough. It forced Butler to blitz more than he wanted to. When he didn’t, and he put his faith in the front four, the defense suffered. Getting carved up in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens by the newly signed Ryan Mallett, completing nearly 70% of his throws and being sacked just once in a 20-17 Steelers’ loss.
Butler’s assessment following the game?
“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. They were letting the ball go pretty quick for the most part. 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.”
His solution, the only feasible fix.
“If we have to blitz a little more then I’m going to blitz a little bit more to get pressure.”
And so he did, blitzkrieging Austin Davis in the regular season finale.
But that isn’t how the defense flourishes. It does by blitzing when you want to, not when you have to. Dick LeBeau knew he could pin Joey Porter, Harrison, or LaMarr Woodley’s ears back and let them hunt. And they would. The fire zones were the cherry on top, the thing that pushed offenses to their brink and robbed offensive coordinators with whatever hair they had left.
The landscape has shifted some with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt and the promise Javon Hargrave brings. But last year showed that as good as they are, for the Steelers to be at the top of their game, their edge guys have to make the biggest impact. Last year, outside linebackers combined for 15 sacks, one fewer than what Harrison had the entire 2008 season.
Dupree was the hope to change the tide. Not to reach those Harrison, stratospheric levels, but to replace Jason Worilds. Crazy how that goal is still out of reach. And with Dupree shelved for at least half the season, he won’t be back until Week Nine at earliest, it’s doubtful anyone will be able to have the impact the best Steelers’ defenses always have.
Perhaps there was no bigger X Factor on this defense than Dupree. The key to this group taking the next step. Without him, this defense won’t function to its full ability.