You’d think beating the Baltimore Ravens, eliminating them from the AFC North race, and advancing to 11-0 would be a joyous occasion for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It feels like anything but.
Not just because of lackluster performances in all three phases: offense, defense, and special teams. That dark cloud will go away soon mostly because it has to. This team is just days away from hosting Washington Football Team. The dark cloud that’s going to hang around for awhile is the loss of Bud Dupree.
Multiple sources are reporting and/or confirming Dupree suffered a torn ACL late in Wednesday’s win over the Ravens.
Everything about this sucks. It sucks for the defense. And even more, it sucks for Dupree.
Bust. Overrated. Poor pass rusher. All terms fans associated with Dupree for the first four years of his career. He took a lot of crap from this fanbase. Everything changed in 2019. He was able to stay healthy, overcoming nagging injuries he played through in the past, and broke out. A career-high 17 QB hits, 16 TFL, and 11.5 sacks. Making up one-half of a tremendous duo between he and TJ Watt.
2020 had been exactly the same. Maybe even better. Watt came into the game first on the team in sacks. Dupree right behind him in second place.
Now, the two have probably played their last down together. And Dupree knew it the second it happened, pounding his fist into Heinz Field’s grass as soon as he fell to the ground.
This was supposed to be Dupree’s year. Get paid on the franchise tag, have another tremendous season, go on a Super Bowl run, get paid in the offseason. He earned all that success. Few guys have his non-stop work ethic, training year-round. Much of that came down in Atlanta and his time spent with pass rush guru Chuck Smith. Here’s Dupree working in May of 2019, when most guys are using their last bit of vacation before OTAs and minicamp begins. Instead, Dupree was working.
All the blood, sweat, and tears began to pay off. Dupree became a complete pass rusher, adding power to his game with a speed bull rush that made him a threat to win the edge or to the inside. His pass rush finally a worthy compliment to his steady, excellent run defense, a freakishly athletic player who consistently played the run with tremendous effort and passion.
And he was well on his way for a massive payday this offseason. Probably not with Pittsburgh, unable to afford his $20 million+ with a TJ Watt mega-extension looming. But for Dupree, a reward for his career turnaround. Now, that’s called into question. Dupree should still have plenty of suitors this offseason but his market value has taken an undeniable hit with teams knowing he won’t be ready for the start of 2021. He much of an impact it will have is hard to say.
Where the Steelers’ defense goes from here is also thrown into question. They’ve now lost two of their four starting linebackers to torn ACLs. Devin Bush first, now Dupree. Body blows to this defense that won’t result in an immediate TKO but sure add up over time.
The beauty of Pittsburgh’s defense is its ability to get home with just four guys. Watt, Dupree, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt. As fearsome a foursome as you’re going to find in the NFL. Entering this week, 57% of Dupree’s pressures and 59% of Watt’s came with just a three or four man rush. Keith Butler knows how to dial up a blitz but ideally, the defense got home with four while dropping seven into coverage. That’s winning defense in today’s NFL filled with elite, pinpoint quarterbacks.
Will that have to change now? Rookie Alex Highsmith, who should step into Dupree’s role, has played well, but isn’t anywhere near Dupree’s level. This defense will have to find a way to compensate for the reduced pressure they’ll receive with Dupree out.
Then there’s run defense. As good as Dupree has become attacking the quarterback, his calling card has always been run defense. Setting the edge, getting off blocks, backside contain to not allow the cutback lane for the runner. Leave Dupree or Watt unblocked and they’ll come from behind to make the play. Again, Highsmith has been impressive. But he’s not Dupree. Not even close.
Dupree’s absence also stresses depth. Pittsburgh had an impressive 1-2-3 combo going of Dupree, Watt, and Highsmith rotating in. Now Highsmith will start with Ola Adeniyi bumping up into that rotational role. If Pittsburgh wants to run their 3 OLB set they’ve sprinkled in against heavier run personnel groupings this year (like the first Ravens’ game), it’ll be that much harder to do. There’s a domino effect here. And if there’s another injury to this group? Things get really bad.
The reality is this. Even if Dupree avoided this injury, 2020 was going to be his last in Pittsburgh. If anything, the injury actually slightly increases the odds of his return (if only because the previous odds were zero), though he still figures to be playing elsewhere next season.
No matter what, we were going to have this same conversation a couple months from now, wondering how exactly the team would fill Dupre’s shoes. That was inevitable.
I just wish it would’ve come at the end of this season with Dupree, Watt, and this team holding the Lombardi Trophy. Would’ve been one heck of a parting gift. Let’s hope this defense – and this team – can still get him a ring.