The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: A 60-sack season for the defense in 2019 is doable.
Explanation: The Steelers have led or tied for the lead in sacks for a defense in each of the past two season, topping 50 sacks in each year. That included a franchise-record 56 sacks in 2017, but that still falls comfortably short of the all-time record. In fact, there have been 28 instances in league history in which a team has recorded 60 or more sacks in a season, the record being 72 by the 1984 Chicago Bears.
They are not going to get to 72, but 60 is very much in the discussions for this season following the improvements that they made or can be expected in 2019 in comparison to the past two seasons. For one thing, their best pass-rusher, T.J. Watt, should be even better, even if it would be hard to top his 13 sacks.
But my biggest reason for believing they can hit 60 is because of the secondary improvements that should give them more time to get after the quarterback. Steven Nelson should prove to be a big upgrade and they should play even more man coverage this year. Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds will make a much better pairing in their second year together.
Mike Hilton is healthier. He can get a couple more blitzes home. The defensive line is as poised as ever to make big contributions in this area. And their blitzing form the inside linebacker position with Devin Bush and company is as good as it’s been in years, on paper.
That is, of course, all on paper. That’s for one thing.
For another, so much has to go right over the course of a 16-game season really for a team to even hit 50 sacks. It helps to hold a lot of leads, and losing Antonio Brown and his 15 touchdowns will not make that easier to do.
Some of their top pass rushers last season came close to maxing their numbers, too, like Watt, Javon Hargrave, and Cameron Heyward, all posting their best or second-best sack numbers in their career. Even if they improve, it’s hard to expect more numbers.
And there aren’t really many obvious new sources of sacks. How much will Olasunkanmi Adeniyi even play? Will he look the way he did in the preseason a year ago? It’s really hard to ever call 60 sacks a realistic target. It’s only been done four times in the past 20-plus years, and only once since 2006.