When it comes to getting sacks, the Pittsburgh Steelers have made great strides over the course of the past three seasons since Keith Butler replaced Dick LeBeau at defensive coordinator. Over the course of his last few seasons at the helm, the pass-rush had fallen off a cliff, to the point where there was one season in which they averaged fewer than two sacks per game.
The defense has during the last three years gotten incrementally better and better at getting after the quarterback, as well, and yes, those are two different things. It’s one thing to get sacks, which even in a great year is going to account for about one tenth of your total passing plays that you face. It’s another to consistently get after the passer.
While the sacks have largely been where they have been the past two seasons, the Steelers are also generating pressure more consistently this season, thanks to improvement both in their ability to generate pressure by rushing their four key players (boosted by better health, mind you) as well as more effective situational blitzing.
According to ESPN, in fact, they are actually one of the most successful defenses in the entire league in terms of generating pressure. They are just one of five teams to generate pressure on greater than 30 percent of their passing snaps, doing so 30.9 percent of the time.
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) November 21, 2017
The only four teams that have been able to generate pressure more consistently have been the Jaguars—of course, who lead the league in sacks—, Washington, Cincinnati, and the Rams. Yet even Jacksonville is only at 32.7 percent, still under one third of all passing snaps.
Conversely, you might be surprised to know that the Patriots are among the worst teams in the league with respect to generating pressure on the quarterback this season, and this is in spite of the fact that they are typically playing with a lead—often a sizable lead—which should lend itself to obvious pass-rushing opportunities.
From the same source, New England is averaging pressure on the quarterback on just 22.9 percent of their pass-rushing snaps, which stands as the third-worst percentage in the league, ahead of only the Buccaneers and the Bills. The Dolphins and Chiefs round out the bottom five.
The Steelers have already faced two of the best teams in terms of rushing the passer this season—actually three of the best, as the Browns also rank seventh. In truth, they struggled to contain the pass rush against the Jaguars, and that will be a problem should they face them again in the playoffs.
But getting back to the point of the article, it is a pleasant sight to see that the Steelers are finding more success generating pressure, both traditionally and with the blitz. With Cameron Heyward having seven sacks and the outside linebackers combining for 12, and then getting six from the likes of Vince Williams, and additional sacks from Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, and others, at least this aspect of the defense has seemingly finally gotten where it needs to be.