Most defensive coordinators will tell you that the heart and soul of a good defense is a strong four-man pass rush. The Pittsburgh Steelers actually had a pretty good one last season, surprisingly, and finally. And it helped lead them to producing a franchise-best 57 sacks as a result.
This year, after recording seven sacks against a listless Cleveland Browns team that still managed to draw against them, the pass rush has cooled off significantly, and the coaching staff is trying to figure out how to get it back. They’ve tried blitzing, and they’ve tried playing it straight up. Both have yielded similar results.
“We’ve got to create duress in that pocket”, Head Coach Mike Tomlin offered, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. And that was in response to a question about coverage. “We’ve got to aid our secondary in terms of the coverage and making our quarterback throw out of a well”.
They have not been doing much of that over the past three weeks. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have been held without a sack during that time. the same can be said for T.J. Watt, who had three in the season opener. Bud Dupree has actually held up the best with two sacks over the past three games, though both were on stunts.
“I think our four-man rush has to improve”, admitted defensive coordinator Keith Butler. They have three first-round picks and a second-round pick among their primary participants in a healthy four-man rush, so it ought to produce. “I think it will”, he added. “They were good to us last year”.
In their defense, the Steelers have faced some quarterbacks over the past three weeks who thrive on getting the football out quickly, though that is increasingly becoming a league-wide trend. Watt also observed that quarterbacks “are getting the ball out pretty quick”, adding that teams have also been focusing more on chipping off the edge with tight ends and running backs.
There is no excuse in the world that can fully satisfy some of the wide-open pockets and long times to throw that quarterbacks have seen at times this season against the Steelers, however, and often enough that has not been about a lack of talent, but rather a lack of discipline.
Rush lane integrity remains a big issue, but so too is the failure to complete plays when a defender gets into the backfield. Too often quarterbacks are escaping significant pressure opportunities only to roll out into a clean pocket or scramble for a sizable gain.
The most important aspect of a pass rush is a group of players working in unison toward a common goal. The Steelers’ pass rush often looks more like a four-man race than a coordinated effort. That is the first thing that needs to change.