Yesterday, Matthew Marczi asked a fair and realistic question of if T.J. Watt can notch more than 16 sacks this season, breaking James Harrison’s current single-season record. I’m going to take it a step further and push my chips all-in. Not saying it will happen but I think it’s possible for this defense to be the first to crack 60 in quite some time.
Some perspective. Since 2000, only four defenses have hit that figure. The 2013 Carolina Panthers, 2006 Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers, and 2000 New Orleans Saints. Only two teams did it in the 90s. All those defenses had excellent to elite pass rushers. The Panthers had Greg Hardy, the Chargers Shawn Merriman, Ravens Terrell Suggs (who didn’t even lead the team), and Saints La’Roi Glover.
And all those teams had at least two defenders who registered double-digit sacks.
Pittsburgh is built a similar way. Watt finished the year on the highest of notes and though I wouldn’t classify him as an elite pass rusher – yet – he’s bordering on excellent. He finished last year with 13 takedowns, including three of them over the final three weeks. With his hand use improved, it’s entirely possible he reaches at least 15 sacks in 2019, even if he doesn’t break Deebo’s mark.
Who is the other Steeler who will meet Watt with double-digit sacks? Easy answer. Cam Heyward. 20 of them over the last two seasons. So let’s give him ten.
Stephon Tuitt must finish his chances, he’s admitted as much, but he’s literally a couple steps away from adding another four sacks to his resume. Getting him to a career high seven sacks is more than feasible. Javon Hargrave had an outstanding season but knowing his snap count will be tough to predict, let’s take him down half-a-sack from last season and give him six.
I’m done pounding the pavement for Bud Dupree turning the corner and reaching double-digit sacks (though I will have an article Monday that’ll outline one reason for optimism) but he’s floated around the six sack mark in 2017 and 2018. So let’s give him six in 2019.
Backups are hard to predict but you can assume the backup OLB can register 3-4, especially if Ola Adeniyi sees legitimate playing time, and the backup linemen are a safe bet to chip in two.
From the main pass rushers alone, just the outside linebackers and defensive linemen, we’re already at 50. For most teams, there wouldn’t be much meat left on the bone. But few defenses are as aggressive with their inside linebackers as Pittsburgh. Vince Williams ranks third among all Steelers the last two seasons in sacks (12.5), trailing just Watt and Heyward and first among all off-ball linebackers over that timeframe. Yes, playing time is more murky this year with the additions of Devin Bush and Mark Barron but Williams is still going to play. And when he does, he’s going to get after the quarterback. He had 4.5 in 14 games last year. Giving him another fivem in 2019 is fair.
You can bet Bush is going to be utilized a similar way. That was one of the attractive elements of his game coming out, regularly used as a blitzer by Don Brown and Michigan. Bush had ten sacks his sophomore and junior seasons at UM and seeing him hit five as a rookie is well within reason, especially if he becomes the three down linebacker relatively quickly (perhaps right away).
However you want to slice the group and snaps up, getting ten sacks out of the blitz-happy inside linebackers is right on target. So now we’re at 60.
Not done yet. The secondary gets involved in the action, too. After all, in 2017, Mike Hilton became the first cornerback ever to have three sacks in a game. His numbers came down last year to just one but attribute part of that to the elbow injury he suffered through most of the year. He has a natural feel as a blitzer and now healthy, should return closer to 2017 form. Split the difference and give him two sacks. And tack on another pair for the rest of the secondary, most likely coming from Terrell Edmunds (who had one last year), the occasional outside blitz, or the dimebacker – probably Marcus Allen – getting lucky on a free rush.
Don’t forget if the coverage improves, and it should with the addition of Steven Nelson, it’ll help the pass rush get home, too.
The total? 64 projected. Which would be the most since that 2000 Saints’ defense. And gives us a little bit of play if we’re off on the numbers by a little bit.
And yes, this is obviously highly idealistic. Players have to stay healthy, some (like Tuitt) need to take a jump, opposing offenses have to throw the ball enough, everything’s gotta go right. Are the odds of them hitting 64, or even 60, high this year? No. They aren’t for anyone.
But is it possible? Definitely. They’ve circled that number the last two years. 52 last year, 56 in 2017. The fact we can event entertain the question in semi-realistic terms is something most teams can’t do right now without being committed to a straight jacket.
To make it more visual, here are the high-end projections for each player:
TJ Watt – 15 sacks
Cam Heyward – 10 sacks
Stephon Tuitt – 7 sacks
Bud Dupree – 6 sacks
Javon Hargrave – 6 sacks
Vince Williams – 5 sacks
Devin Bush – 5 sacks
Ola Adeniyi – 3 sacks
Mike Hilton – 2 sacks
Anthony Chickillo – 1 sack
Tyson Alualu – 1 sack
Isaiah Buggs – 1 sack
Terrell Edmunds – 1 sack
Marcus Allen – 1 sack
TOTAL: 64 sacks