Steelers’ Defense Has Good Odds To (Again) Lead League In Sacks

Last season, for the fifth straight year, the Pittsburgh Steelers led the entire NFL in sacks with 55, obviously paced by the AP Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who tied the single-season sack record of 22.5, set by Giants’ Hall of Famer Michael Strahan back in the 2001 season. This feat is absolutely incredible, considering they played the overwhelming majority of the season without starting nose tackle Tyson Alualu, and the entire season without standout defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who was fresh off his finest season in 2020, when he recorded 11 sacks, a career best.

With the recent retirement of Tuitt, this obviously dealt a blow to the defensive line, which was ravaged by injuries last year, and which undoubtedly played a part in the unit’s dead-last ranking against the run. The team this past week went out and signed an insurance policy in the form of Larry Ogunjobi, who’s fresh off a seven-sack season with the rival Bengals, who made a Super Bowl run last year. This signing, coupled with several other the team made on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, are reasons why the team will, for a sixth straight season, lead the league again in sacks.

As I mentioned above, last year’s run D was historically bad, so the team needed to make several upgrades. Inside linebacker Joe Schobert, once a tackling machine earlier in his career, looked like a shell of the player he once was, so the team went out and signed Myles Jack, another tackler extraordinaire who’s had 100+ tackles in three of the past four seasons and who’s still very young at the age of 26. Another young player the team is hopeful can bounce back to his pre-injury form is inside linebacker Devin Bush, the team’s first-round pick in 2019. His rookie season, he flashed the 4.44 speed and sideline-to-sideline ability to team thought they were getting as he racked up 109 total tackles.

Why are these two important and tie into the team’s sacks? Well, if the defensive line is occupying blocks and not getting manhandled, this allows the linebackers to flow and make tackles. The only way for the run D to go is up, and if the team isn’t getting gouged on the ground, it’ll force the opposition to pass more. This will obviously open up more sack opportunities for players such as Watt and Cam Heyward, who last season once again had double-digit sacks, with ten. It’s fair to say a third-year jump in production may be in store for outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, who jumped from two sacks his rookie year to six last year.

The team’s secondary signings should pay off as well, as the team retained free agent corner Ahkello Witherspoon, who led the team in interceptions last year with three. They also agreed with outside free agent CB Levi Wallace, previously of Buffalo who is very solid in coverage, and arguably an upgrade over an aging Joe Haden, with whom the team decided not to bring back following the season. They also made All-Pro free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick the highest-paid safety in league history, and the team also re-upped strong safety Terrell Edmunds, so by and large, the team has three quarters of their entire starting secondary returning from last year. Sticky coverage equals pass rush production.

The straw that stirs the drink as far as the rush goes is without a doubt Watt. If we take a deep dive into his stats since his rookie season, his sack production each year has only went up by leaps and bounds. If we divide the number of his sacks by games played, it shows the jumps. In his rookie year, Watt netted .47 sacks per game, .81 per game in year two, .91 in year three and one per game in year four. Last year, he made the ultimate jump, averaging 1.5 per game, courtesy of his record-tying 22.5 over 15 games started. It’s food for thought as to what he would’ve done had he not missed those two and a half games, and a few questionable calls including a roughing the passer and an “aborted snap” in the season finale versus Baltimore essentially wiped away what would’ve been the record-breaking sacks on QB Tyler Huntley. If we do the math equation of his production for last season, but correlate it over 17 games, he would’ve ended in the 26-27 neighborhood, crushing the record. If Watt can stay healthy for the entire 17-game season in ‘22, and again makes another leap in his sack production, he will absolutely obliterate the record, which he currently shares with Strahan.

If we add in all these ingredients, including the free agent additions, coupled with player developmental ones, it looks safe to assume that the team will once again lead the league in sacks, and my money is on the team eclipsing the 55 they recorded last season. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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