In 2015, the Steelers racked up 48 sacks — up almost 50 percent from 2014’s 33. So, naturally, they need to focus on improving their pass rush.
What is scariest about those 48 sacks — for opponents anyway — is that the pass rush was incredibly inconsistent in 2015. With four outside linebackers each playing roughly half of the snaps at their respective positions, it was hard at times to get into a rhythm. Long the pass-rush specialists in Pittsburgh’s defense, the outside linebackers contributed just 15 of those 48 sacks. There was a time when the team’s top two outside ‘backers put up double-digit sacks — each.
Yes, part of it is a changed scheme. New defensive coordinator Keith Butler uses his defensive linemen as active pass rushers on most plays. His predecessor, Dick LeBeau, used them primarily to absorb blocks. Defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt combined for 13.5 sacks just between the two of them. Clearly, the approach is working.
So, if it’s working, why fix it?
Because the opportunities are there to make those numbers even better in 2016. Jarvis Jones had two sacks in rotation with James Harrison, who had five. Jones was used primarily in coverage on passing downs, limiting his opportunities. He also doesn’t have a fully developed arsenal of pass-rush moves, which is still holding back his ability to get after the quarterback effectively. But, it’s a contract year, so his motivation should be as high as it’s ever been.
I’m not about to forget that Harrison will be 38 years old. As ageless as he may seem, made of adamantium, he ain’t. But he has history on his side — as in, he’s on the verge of making it. Again. Forget that he went from undrafted free agent to Defensive Player of the Year. He’s just three sacks away from being all alone atop the Steelers’ all-time sacks list.
On the other side of the defense, Arthur Moats and Bud Dupree had four sacks apiece. Moats is a solid contributor, but is never going to burn down the house. Bud Dupree has all the makings of a superstar, but he’s got just one year of experience. In a LeBeau defense, he may have seen a handful of snaps per game. Under Butler’s simpler, more straightforward scheme, it’s easier for a rookie to jump in and contribute. He did, but he has a long way to go.
One wrinkle that Butler has made extensive use of so far is to get the secondary involved in the pass rush. As a group, they contributed seven sacks, or almost one every other game. Safety Will Allen had four of those, and he may have been the slowest player in the secondary in 2015. With the additions of Senquez Golson, Artie Burns and Sean Davis, along with some actual playing time for Doran Grant, there is a distinct chance we could see that number go up considerably in 2016.
The biggest weapon Butler will have at his disposal in 2016 is speed. What could be on the field in nickel formations is astounding. Guys like Golson, Burns and Davis have speed to burn, and linebackers Ryan Shazier and Travis Feeney (assuming Feeney makes the team) are possibly the two fastest linebackers in the NFL today. And if the game continues to slow down for Dupree, his ridiculously quick first step could be devastating — especially if he has a safety lined up off his outside shoulder for the left tackle to think about, too.
All of that should combine for a sack total that goes above 50 for the first time in a long time.