It is now going on half a decade since the Pittsburgh Steelers established themselves as consistently the best pass-rushing team in the NFL. Even though they only generated three sacks in their season opener on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills (still fourth-most for the week), they put an incredible amount of pressure on fourth-year quarterback Josh Allen.
While All-Pro defensive tackle Cameron Heyward was a crucial part of that, the Steelers’ trio of edge rushers really drove that game, led by T.J. Watt and his two sacks, along with second-year Alex Highsmith, and free agent addition Melvin Ingram. All three have looked great throughout the offseason, making one wonder how to get them all on the field together.
And head coach Mike Tomlin did offer that that is an option on the table. “We’re excited we’ve got all three of them, and we intend to utilize all three of them”, he said yesterday during his pre-game press conference. “And maybe, from time to time, all three at once, if the situation allots for it”.
The Steelers did very briefly use a three-edge sub-package last year, though in a different context, with the intention of minimizing the absence of slot cornerback Mike Hilton. Watt and Bud Dupree were supplemented by then-rookie Highsmith as the third outside linebacker, a package in which he recorded an interception.
Should they decide to use it this year, it’s not clear what the focus would be, exactly, because the Steelers did experiment with playing their edges off the ball. Watt, for example, saw four snaps in the box, as did Ingram, and Highsmith saw six.
With Stephon Tuitt still out for at least two more games, and quite possibly more, though, one might have the impulse to get them all on the field together to rush the passer, as clearly three of their four best for that job.
It is something that can be effective when deployed prudently, and perhaps especially in obvious passing situations. Ingram or Highsmith as the fourth rusher rather than Chris Wormley or Tyson Alualu certainly has a favoritism to it against an offensive line playing on their heels rather than going forward.
Of course, it’s only been one week, so perhaps it would be prudent to collect more data from a larger sample size before making alterations. But I don’t think anybody should be surprised if, sometime relatively soon, we see all three of them on the field at the same time.