The Pittsburgh Steelers used a healthy rotation of defensive linemen and outside linebackers on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills in their regular-season opener, a road win against one of the teams regarded to be among the top contenders in the AFC. Rarely did more than four of them go after the quarterback at any given time.
While there is some wiggle room in the definition, it’s generally given to understand that any pass rush with five or more players is considered a ‘blitz’, bringing a greater amount of pressure than is typical at the expense of an extra player, or multiple players, in coverage.
The fewer players you need to get the quarterback down, generally, the better, and they only needed their front four for Josh Allen. But that won’t necessarily be the blueprint for their strategy for the remainder of the season.
“We did what we had to do to win that game”, head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters yesterday during his pre-game press conference when asked about the defense’s lack of blitzing, which had been a key part of their personality last season. “What we did is by no way indicative of what we intend our intentions to be this week, or our personality to be moving forward. We did what we had to do to win that game”.
The lynchpins of the Steelers’ pass rush are defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who were both at or very near their best against a good Bills defensive line. They were relentless and physical as pass rushers, and regularly put Buffalo’s best protectors to shame.
The two accounted for all three of the team’s sacks, but they generated so much pressure—along with Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram, primarily, their two other primary edge defenders—that Allen had a difficult time throwing on-rhythm throughout the game.
He was still able to get some numbers here and there, which is what happens when you drop back to pass 54 times, but he averaged fewer than six yards per pass attempt, and completed just one pass that gained more than 16 yards.
That heavy emphasis on coverage and getting home with the front four is what the Steelers believed would be the most effective plan against Allen and the Bills. But that would be true of every week. I recall last season when we were discussing a lack of blitzing, only to see them pour it on and finish with the third-highest blitzing percentage in the league.
The reality is that the Steelers are good with a front four and as a blitz-oriented pass rush. Which strategy is more effective will vary week to week, and it would be foolish to limit oneself to one identity in this regard.