The evolution of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass rush over the course of Keith Butler’s tenure as defensive coordinator has been pretty remarkable. After Dick LeBeau’s unit was sapped of its most talented players, either through age or salary cap casualty, his older defensive schemes were not getting the job done.
While Butler has been relentlessly criticized for the job he has done in his stead, one thing that he has done well has been finding ways to manufacture pressure via blitzes. That saw its highwater mark in 2017, when his group led the league and set a new franchise record with 56 sacks. They had 15 different players contribute to that sack total.
Since then, however, the Steelers have been narrowing their pass rush more and more, increasingly relying upon just four-man pressure, preferably without a blitzing defender, and sometimes even dropping seven instead while still effectively hindering the quarterback.
Pittsburgh tied for the league lead in sacks again last season, and this year, their 29 sacks ranks fourth, currently, but that is behind two teams who have already played nine games (who have 32 and 30 sacks). Only the Carolina Panthers with 34 sacks lies notably ahead of them. Their quarterback knockdown percentage of 10.1 also ranks third, and their pressure percentage of 30.3 percent is second.
“I don’t know that we are bringing any more pressure than we normally have”, head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday when he was asked if the defense was sending more to get more. “I think we are just having more success with the number of people that we bring”:
If you look at the ratio of people to rush to coverage, I don’t think that we are functioning any differently than we have in recent years. When we are rushing four, that four is getting significant pressure. And even at times when we are rushing three, like early in the game, Bud Dupree got a sack early in the game, that was in a three-man rush. I don’t think the ratio has changed or our mentality in terms of how we deploy our people, I just think we are getting big time productivity out of those that we do bring.
The resurgent edge pressure has been a huge catalyst of that. Through eight games, T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have combined for 13.5 sacks, Watt with 7.5 and Dupree with 6. Dupree has already tied his career high, while Watt is on pace to break his, though he’ll need five more to do so.
The Steelers are still trying to find ways to be creative with their pressure in the aftermath of Stephon Tuitt’s season-ending injury, and that’s a process that will continue to unfold over the course of the next eight weeks, but they’ve gotten six sacks in the two games they’ve played since then, and quality pressure rates.