2016 South Side Questions: Can Steelers Carry Over Pass Rush Success?

The regular season is here, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking their practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the real work is now upon us, there is plenty left to be done.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they wade through a regular season in which they are, at least supposed to be, among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Question: How much of yesterday’s pass-rushing success can the Steelers actually carry over to higher quality opponents?

Yesterday, Pittsburgh looked a lot like Blitzburgh throughout the game against the Browns, during which they accumulated eight sacks, the most by any team in any game this season, and more than any Steelers team has put together in a game since 2005.

They didn’t simply rack up the sacks, however, but they also frequently put pressure on the opposing quarterback, and this was largely a product of the high percentage of plays on which they brought a blitz—even though six of their eight sacks were attributed to their defensive line or outside linebackers.

But it would be disingenuous to fail to recognize that this pass rushing success came against the Browns, of course, who have among the worst overall offensive lines in football, in spite of the fact that they have arguably the best offensive lineman of this generation at left tackle.

Cleveland lost two of its best starters along the offensive line in free agency and another went down due to injury. They already gave up 30 sacks over the course of their first 10 games, which was exactly three sacks per game on average. They have now given up 38 sacks thanks to Pittsburgh.

But considering the relatively meager output the Steelers had in that department in the previous nine games collectively, why should we expect this to continue? Not eight sacks per game, of course, but even two or three sacks per game. At the very least, their next opponent, the Colts, is an inviting one, as they have given up 35 sacks through 11 games already this year.

The Steelers were able to manufacture 48 sacks a year ago using a variety of blitzing strategies, and there has been a clear correlation this year between frequency of blitzes and accumulation of sacks, so a continuation of the pressure packages should keep the sacks coming at a higher rate than early anemic results.

Of course, that is purely speculative and projecting, and only the next few games will tell. It was nice to see while it lasted, but whether or not Pittsburgh can continue to be a frequent presence in opposing teams’ backfields can’t be safely determined based just from yesterday’s showing.

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