The Pittsburgh Steelers have had multiple periods of defensive dominance over the years. Their 70s era is arguably unparalleled in terms of sustained success over a period of years, but they also had an excellent run of play during different periods in the 90s and then under Dick LeBeau in the 2000s.
The LeBeau era that helped lead to two Lombardi Trophies and three trips to the Super Bowl is the one that the majority of us are most familiar with, if not simply because it is the most recent, and thus most immediate, and the defense continues to retain many of those features, which were already under development while he was on the staff in the 90s.
One of the primary features of LeBeau’s zone blitz defense was the athletic versatility of his inside linebackers. While he has had inside linebackers of all shapes and sizes over the years, it has consistently been important that they featured players who were capable of generating pressure, typically up the middle, on relatively frequent blitzes.
They still had that last season with Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. Now we have to find out how successful fifth-year inside linebacker and first-time starter Vince Williams performing in that role as he looks to fill his predecessor’s shoes on the field every Sunday.
I don’t think there is much question about whether or not Shazier will continue to succeed. While he has registered three and a half sacks in each of the past two seasons, which is acceptable, his impact on the past rush has gone beyond simply sacks.
As a graphic posted by Pro Football Focus recently indicates, both Shazier and Timmons were among the most effective inside linebackers during the regular season last year when it comes to generating pressure on the snaps on which they rushed the quarterback.
Bringing back Dont’a Hightower was crucial for the Pats this offseason pic.twitter.com/k0YZK613gy
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 13, 2017
According to their data, Shazier generated a total of 18 pressures, which translated to a pass rush productivity of 13.2, and a pressure generation percentage of 22.8. that means that Shazier at least hurried the quarterback on more than one in every five blitzes.
Timmons was not far behind, generating pressure 21.7 percent of the time, and actually had a better pass rush productivity rating of 13.6, producing 22 hurries. That was the most total hurries of the top five rushers featured on the list.
Shazier and Timmons ranked fourth and fifth on the list, though it should be noted that Su’a Cravens is listed as third, and he is not exactly a full-time linebacker. Dont’a Higtower was the most successful at his position in the league last season, generating pressure nearly 30 percent of the time.
It is imperative for the continued effectiveness of the Steelers’ model of defense that Williams picks up in this category where Timmons left off. He did register two sacks in 2016, so that is a start.