There is no doubt that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass rush in 2016 has been underwhelming. After finishing 2015 with 48 sacks, they appeared to be on an upward trajectory towards becoming one of the most dynamic pass rushes in all of football. But injuries, primarily to players like Bud Dupree and more recently Cam Heyward, combined with less snaps for James Harrison have resulted in a disappointingly average attack ranking 19th in the NFL.
And it could be a lot worse had it not been for the past 3 weeks.
Prior to week 11, the Steelers had accounted for a whopping total of 13 sacks. That’s under 1.5 sacks per game; certainly not where this team wanted to be that late into the season. But in week 11 versus the Cleveland Browns, that seemed to change. They got after the quarterback eight times with six different players.
In the subsequent weeks to follow, versus the Indianapolis Colts and then the New York Giants, they tacked on five more (3 vs IND, 2 vs NYG). So in the past three weeks, the Steelers doubled their season sack total, now sitting at 26. And furthermore, quarterbacks facing Pittsburgh are being sacked in roughly 5 percent of their dropbacks.
For comparison, the Buffalo Bills’ pass rush (ranking 3rd in sacks) are bringing down the quarterback in nearly 8 percent of dropbacks (1st in NFL). Look for that number to rise for the Steelers moving forward.
But the glaring opportunity for the Steelers this week, is to continue racking up those sack totals as Tyrod Taylor is tied as being the 2nd most sacked quarterback in football. Opponents have brought him down 34 times this year. Only the Colts’ Andrew Luck has been sacked more (36).
There are likely a couple of reasons for this. The first and foremost, in my opinion, is the play of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He’s racked up over 500 yards rushing this year, showing that he can be a threat on the ground. This will be problematic for the Steelers, as the Bills are running the football better than anybody else in the league.
But as the saying goes, you live by the sword; you die by the sword.
Taylor has a habit of not going through all of his progressions on a given play. If his first read falls apart, he is likely to leave the pocket and attempt to find some running room. This can be an asset, as evidenced in his rushing totals, but it also makes him vulnerable to certain defensive schemes. If there’s a spy, there’s a good chance he’s not getting very far, if even past the line of scrimmage. And with the speed of defensive ends nowadays, and teams utilizing a majority nickel formation as the Steelers do, there may be room up the middle, but an outside scramble is not promising.
Another factor, when Taylor isn’t scrambling, is that he usually waits for his receiver to get open before throwing the football, as opposed to anticipating the location and firing into that small window. He’s talented, but still young in terms of starting experience. Last year, nobody had more time to throw than Taylor, yet he still managed to get sacked 36 times (11th in NFL). He’s on track to surpass that this year, and the Steelers could be the ones to make that happen.
So with an increasingly productive front seven of the Steelers, and an exploitable quarterback in Taylor, Pittsburgh should be able to find success when rushing the passer on Sunday despite an injury riddled defensive line.