The news of Stephon Tuitt’s retirement marks the end of a career for the former second round pick. Looking back, Tuitt’s final season of 2020 may have been his best, especially from a pass-rushing perspective. Now the team must truly move forward without the thought of his services.
During the 2020 season Tuitt came into his own as a pass-rushing threat. Posting a career high in sacks with 11 per Pro Football Reference, or 12 according to Pro Football Focus.
Tuitt’s 2020 season also marked the highest pressure rate percentage of his career per PFF.
Stephon Tuitt Pressure Rate By Regular Season
The only player to tally more total pressures in 2020 than Tuitt’s 71 for the Steelers was T.J. Watt with 73. In fact, Watt’s monster season of 2021 helped overshadow the loss of Tuitt from a pass rush standpoint.
On the surface the casual observer would see the Steelers led the league in sacks again for a fifth consecutive season in 2021. The reality though is their overall team pressure rate took a dip during the same stretch.
Pittsburgh Steelers Team Pressure Rate By Regular Season & Ranks
2021: 31.9% (17th)
2020: 45.1% (1st)
2019: 44.9% (1st)
2018: 35.1% (8th)
2017: 40.4% (3rd)
Watt’s huge season last year helped cover the blemishes of the team pressure rate. His historic sack total also helped Pittsburgh’s run of staying among the team leaders in sack percentage since 2017 as well.
Pittsburgh Steelers Team Sack % By Regular Season & Ranks
2021: 8.4% (2nd)
2020: 9.2% (1st)
2019: 9.0% (1st)
2018: 8.2% (3rd)
2017: 9.7% (1st)
Moving forward it’s going to take a little more than T.J. Watt having another incredible year to sustain team pass-rushing success. The overall team pressure rate taking a dip last season is simply hard to ignore.
Cam Heyward is the other constant and obvious choice as the team leader to get to the passer. Heyward is indeed consistent in his career in terms of creating pressure, but his 11.2% pressure rate in 2021 was his lowest for a season since 2016 (8.6%). Many explanations could be attributed to this. Commanding more attention with less viable pass-rushing threats perhaps the main one. Of Heyward’s 61 total pressures last season, only three of them were unblocked.
Watt also obviously demands a lot of attention too. His 62 pressures last season only witnessed four unblocked pressures. In both 2020 and 2019, Watt enjoyed 10 unblocked pressures within each of those seasons.
How to fix it? The answer could be two-fold. The first involves players stepping in and raising their play. The other possibly involves scheme in terms of using stunts.
Pittsburgh ranked towards the bottom the league last season in creating pressure and getting sacks on stunts. They also seemed to abandon the thought of using stunts compared to recent seasons.
Circling back to Tuitt, he seemingly was improving each season within stunts for the Steelers defense. Of the 12 credited sacks in his 2020 season, half of them came while using stunts. Those six sacks came on 159 snaps. The previous three seasons Tuitt managed six total sacks on 311 snaps – much improved. His pressure rate of 16.4% with stunts was also higher compared to without at 14.5% in 2020. The 16.4% in his final season was also a career high for Tuitt as well.
If the Steelers plan on getting back to using stunts at a higher rate they’re obviously going to need players to fill the roles successfully. The addition of DeMarvin Leal adds hope and after his draft selection, a closer look at how he performed as a pass rusher in college was broken down. In revisiting Leal’s college career, Leal earned 20 of his 22 total sacks without stunts. He at least has a good deal of experience with them though. Texas A&M thrived on getting to the passer on 3rd down with stunts and Leal was certainly a factor in helping create pressure.
Along the Pittsburgh defensive line, a healthy Tyson Alualu would also work wonders after missing nearly all the 2021 season. Since arriving in Pittsburgh, Alualu has shown improvements rushing the passer with and without stunts. Chris Wormley has proved serviceable over his career so far. Both pale in comparison to Tuitt’s production, however.
The younger players along the defensive line with NFL experience are still raw. Isaiahh Loudermilk has barely sniffed the QB on 140 passing snaps with just six total pressures. Henry Mondeaux has nine total pressures on 156 snaps. Carlos Davis and Khalil Davis combined have four total pressures on less than 100 passing snaps. Daniel Archibong with just a handful of snaps overall.
Montravius Adams hasn’t necessarily materialized as a pass rusher during his career. Although his pressure rate of 6.4% last season was the highest of his career. Adams also posted highs on win rate at 13.0% and an 8.7% pressure rate with stunts in 2021. Over his career though he doesn’t have a ton of experience using stunts with just 96 total snaps. Another year within the Steelers system could see more improvements.
Simply put, Tuitt’s shoes are hard to fill. The Steelers already had a year to digest what life looks like without him on the field. It appears they opted to change their strategy a bit when it came to using stunts.
If they get back to the habit of using stunts more frequently to rush the passer, they’re going to need to do it more effectively to see the success prior to 2021. At least from pressure rate perspective as the team will once again aim to lead the league in sacks.