It’s become nearly annual tradition, but I keep broaching the topic because the Pittsburgh Steelers are so close.
Yet so far.
They’ve been on the brink of a 60-sack season for five years running but falling short each year. Here’s how close they’ve come.
They’ve tied or held the outright sack lead five years running. But at this point, that is boooring. It’s expected. This defense needs to take it to another level. All that means is about five more sacks in a season.
A 60-sack season is the goal because it’s so rare. Mid-50s, you see that most years. Sixty is a land rarely ventured. This century, it’s been done just four times and it’s been nearly a decade since the last instance.
Sixty-Sack Seasons (2000-2021)
Carolina Panthers: 60 (2013)
San Diego Chargers: 61 (2006)
Baltimore Ravens: 60 (2006)
New Orleans Saints: 66 (2000)
Three of those four teams barely hit 60 but hey, it all counts the same. With a 17-game season, odds naturally increase of some defense joining that elite club. If it’s going to be anyone, it should be Pittsburgh. While there’s questions over their run defense and secondary ceiling, there’s little debate over their pass rush. Even with all the injuries last year, the Steelers still hit 55 QB takedowns.
There’s reason to believe that number will be higher in 2022. It should be a healthier group. T.J. Watt played through nagging injuries all last season and still tied the single-season record. Alex Highsmith wasn’t healthy until the backhalf of the year and his production showed it, four sacks over the final four games, including the Wild Card loss. Tyson Alualu returns and Larry Ogunjobi is added coming off his career-high seven sacks a year ago. Pittsburgh also got just three combined sacks from their off-ball linebackers and defensive backs, an unusually low number. No Vince Williams or Mike Hilton hurt, but it’s plausible that number rises one or two this year.
So let’s map this out. How could this team realistically hit 60 sacks? Some numbers.
T.J. Watt: 20 sacks
Cam Heyward: 11 sacks
Alex Highsmith: 7.5 sacks
Larry Ogunjobi: 6.5 sacks
Backup OLBs: 3.5 sacks
Chris Wormley: 3 sacks
Myles Jack: 2.5 sacks
Secondary: 2 sacks
DeMarvin Leal: 2 sacks
Tyson Alualu: 1.5 sacks
Montravius Adams: 1 sack
Isaiahh Loudermilk: 0.5 sacks
That gets you to 61 sacks. To me, these are realistically conservative numbers. Watt’s sack numbers go backward for the first time of his career and it’s certainly arguably he breaks the sack record this season. Heyward’s 11 sacks would be about his norm, Highsmith would see a small but not massive increase with Wormely’s numbers taking a step back and none of the rotational players putting up monster numbers.
Will it happen? Well we’ve been down this road before. I map things out, injuries happen, bad luck occurs after a sack is negated from some uber-strict roughing the passer call. But I remain optimistic that if any group is going to do it, it’s this bunch. Better run defense, easy to do after finishing 32nd last year, should create longer third downs and more chances for Pittsburgh to pin their ears back, though interestingly, Pittsburgh’s defense had the third-longest third down distance last year.
Hopefully this is the year. Given recent history, they’ll be in striking distance. In that mid-50s range. If a couple breaks go their way, they’ll hit 60. Which is good because then I won’t need to write this post again.