One of the more interesting things that the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be experimenting with on the defensive side of the ball for the 2018 season is flipping their outside linebackers. 2015 first-round draft pick Bud Dupree has spent his entire professional career up to this point rushing off the left side, while T.J. Watt spent his rookie year on the right, but the plan seems to be to reverse those roles going forward.
Bob Labriola sees the logic in that. During an Asked and Answered segment on the team’s website, he noted that he first heard of the idea around the time of the NFL Scouting Combine in February, and even at the time felt that it was worth trying “based on the particular skill-sets of each of the players and how they were used in college”.
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert previously suggested, basically, that the only reason Dupree was ever stuck on the left side to begin with was in order to accommodate Jarvis Jones, their first-round pick in 2013, whom they appeared to view either as a one-sided player or as their future at the right spot.
“Dupree plays at 270 pounds, which to me seems to make him better suited to be working along the line of scrimmage and attacking the backfield”, Labriola wrote. “Watt is close to 250 pounds, and based on the plays he made in space last season as a rookie he seems to have an aptitude for playing in space”.
He noted that the right outside linebacker spot has been traditionally reserved for the team’s best pass-rusher, with James Harrison and Joey Porter being the two most recent examples of note, “so putting Dupree there could turn out to be playing to his strengths”.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler said earlier this offseason that that he thought Dupree might be “less useless” rushing from the quarterback’s blindside because, while he was able to get into the backfield with relative frequency, he was too rarely able to get close to the quarterback, who would see him in time and flush up into the pocket.
The theory is that he would have a longer period of time to ‘get home’ rushing from the right side, where most quarterbacks in the league—being right-handed—will had their back to him. Just a split second longer of sitting in the backfield could add a lot of numbers to Dupree’s stat sheet. In theory.
Labriola believes that moving Dupree to the right side and Watt to the left could help facilitated the Steelers achieving their aims for the outside linebacker position, which is, one, to “upgrade their outside pass rush”, and two, to “be able to do multiple things within the scheme of the defense”. He refers here mostly to Watt’s pass coverage.
I’ve personally been on board with the idea of switching sides as well. I think it gives Dupree his best chance of proving himself as a pass-rusher, and the team has in the past preferred to drop their left linebacker more often into coverage than their right, as LaMarr Woodley did.