PFF Shows Steelers Still Predominant Zone-Blitz Team In NFL

While the Pittsburgh Steelers have gradually modified their defense from the Dick LeBeau formula little by little year after year for the past half-decade, there are some concepts that he installed that remain a bedrock of the unit, at least as it compares to the rest of the NFL. The numbers show clearly that they rely on zone-blitz concepts about as much as any other unit in the league.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers saw the third-most snaps in coverage by their defensive linemen and edge defenders of all defenses in 2018. Likewise, they also had the fifth-most pass-rushing snaps from members of the defensive backfield and inside linebackers.

Those two concepts go hand-in-hand with the zone blitz, where one likely pass-rusher replaces a likely coverage player on a play as they swap responsibilities. The idea is to create a mismatch without giving up numbers against the pass. LeBeau helped invent and then perfected this technique.

And you know the love of the zone blitz is still alive and well based on the team’s lavish praise of Devin Bush’s ability to get after the passer. According to PFF, by the way, Bush had the second-highest pass-rush productivity in college last season among all off-ball linebackers who declared for the draft.

The inside linebacker position has long been a key force in the zone blitz, and they have occasionally put up big numbers. Kendrell Bell had nine sacks back in 2001. Vince Williams as recently as 2017 had eight. Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior have both had multiple seasons with at least six sacks.

By their numbers, the Steelers recorded 272 snaps last season on which an edge rusher or defensive lineman pulled coverage responsibilities. A lot of those went to T.J. Watt, and that was after his coverage snaps dropped from his rookie season. As mentioned, that was the third-most in the NFL.

Likewise, they saw 377 defensive snaps in which a defensive back or an off-ball linebacker went after the passer, which was the fifth-most in the NFL. With the addition of Bush, that number doesn’t figure to go down. In fact, if he doesn’t start, he’ll likely be brought on the field to do just that sometimes. And you know they like to blitz Mike Hilton.

Still, Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and company have been preaching for years about the key of being able to get to the quarterback with four rushers. They had a lot more success doing that last season than they have in many years, perhaps going all the way back to 2010 or 2011.

Based on their success rushing with Watt, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Bud Dupree, perhaps they may consider fewer zone blitzes than has been customary if the four-man rush continues to be effective. But I don’t see it becoming a non-factor any time soon. Blitzing is an essential part of today’s game, and the Steelers still value edge players who can drop.

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