Ever since the Pittsburgh Steelers’ postseason loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, it has been open season on the defense, with nearly every aspect of the group being attacked from one source or another for being a certain degree of terrible. Even in a season in which they set a new franchise record in sacks, while leading the league, their pass rush has been called lacking.
There is no arguing that that was indeed the case in the biggest game of the season, but that should not reflect upon the full body of work of the entire year, because the truth is that they made a lot of important progress in that regard, which will hopefully be built upon in 2018.
In fact, according to Matt Harmon’s Next Gen Stats for NFL.com, the Steelers finished as the ninth-best pass-rushing team in the NFL in 2017. While not exceptional, it is certainly not bad either, but does clearly indicate that there is room for improvement—which everybody already knows.
To be clear, this list strives to be objective as possible, and the teams are simply ranked based on the number of pressures that they recorded during the regular season. A more compelling measurement would have been pressures per quarterback dropback faced, but I digress. They also specifically define a pressure as a defender having gotten within two yards of a quarterback at the time of a throw or sack in order to eliminate subjectivity.
“The Steelers are unique compared to other teams on this list, as both of their top two pass rushers are interior defensive linemen”, Harmon wrote. “[Cameron] Heyward led the team with 42 pressures, and Stephon Tuitt wasn’t far behind, with 38. Despite playing traditional 3-4 defensive end roles, the duo totaled 34.8 percent of the team’s pressures”.
He talked about the need for more edge pressure and noted the potential that rookie T.J. Watt displayed in his first season. “Watt racked up 33 pressures on 261 pass-rushing plays, leading the group with a 12.6 percent pressure rate. Pittsburgh also got plenty of use out of its inside linebackers as blitzers, with Vince Williams (16 pressures) and Ryan Shazier (seven pressures) putting heat on quarterbacks when called upon”.
While the Steelers ranked ninth in pressures, for example, they also saw the second-fewest passes attempted against them with just 499. Of course you have to add in the sacks to get the total number of dropbacks, which is 555, but the point is that they faced fewer pass attempts than most teams and yet still ranked in the top 10 in pressures.
The Philadelphia Eagles ranked far ahead of everybody else in pressures with 291 (61 more than Pittsburgh), but they also faced 639 dropbacks. So they generated pressure on 45.5 percent of dropbacks, while Pittsburgh generated pressure on 41.6 percent. The point is, their percentage of pressure was probably higher than ninth, without doing all the legwork.