It’s no surprise the Pittsburgh Steelers have wanted to return to their “Blitzburgh” roots for some time now, but they simply haven’t had the right personnel to get the job done. Failed draft picks like Jarvis Jones—and to some extent, Jason Worilds—left the team searching for answers almost yearly when the NFL Draft rolled around.
But after the draft picks of Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, has Pittsburgh finally found the bookend outside linebackers they’ve been searching for all these years? Some might say, “absolutely,” while others take a wait-and-see approach. But the fact remains the Steelers’ defense doesn’t merely want these players to develop, they need these players to develop.
It’s time to take a look at the Black-and-gold news outside the walls of BTSC.
The Steelers had seven sacks against Cleveland on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean they went “Blitzburgh” on the Browns. The Steelers did blitz some, but they also got at least four of their seven sacks without blitzing at all. And that should scare the heck out of opposing offensive coordinators as they prepare to deal with the Steelers’ pass rush.
Pressure without blitzing means the Steelers won the one-on-one battles up front, and that allowed them to drop more men into coverage. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said that’s an exciting development for the Steelers because they came into the season hoping to improve in that area.
“Everybody knows that we had seven sacks, but we came by them in different ways,” Butler said. “Sometimes it was the basic 4-man rush, sometimes it was the 3-man rush, sometimes it was blitz.”
The fact that the Steelers got a sack with their 3-man rush is especially exciting because it meant eight players could drop into coverage. Butler can be more creative with his coverage alignments if that continues, and the Steelers then will become very difficult to pass against. That’s a welcome change from last season when the Steelers ranked No. 17 in the NFL in pass defense. The Steelers gave up 3,882 passing yards (243 yards per game) and their porous pass defense ultimately cost them the AFC championship against the Patriots. While they did rank ninth in sacks (38), Butler said they had to blitz too often to achieve that number. He’d like to see more sacks coming from the front three or four and a lower percentage of them coming from blitzes.
It’s always a good day when you can quote a line from one of the Godfather movies.
“This is the business we’ve chosen,” Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part II.”
I thought about that Thursday afternoon when I talked to Todd Haley after the Steelers practice on the South Side. His business of choice is coaching football—offensive football to be specific. There are drawbacks because he has his critics, lots of critics.
A year ago, it took until the third game for fans to start calling for Haley to be fired. The Steelers failed to score a touchdown in a 34-3 loss at Philadelphia as the Eagles held them to 29 rushing yards and sacked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger four times.
This season, the critics have come out early. They were biting at Haley’s behind during the first game of the season on Sunday in Cleveland. And they were still biting after the Steelers won, 21-18 because the offense looked dull and ineffective and produced only two touchdowns and 290 yards.
“I wasn’t disappointed at all because a win is a win. It really is,” Haley said. “When you start on the road in the [AFC] North, you know it’s going to be a rough game. We did what it took to win.
“I thought it was a great win for us. I thought we showed great resolve in the red zone with the limited opportunities we had. Now, we want to be in there a lot more. But when we got in there, we put the ball in the end zone. I thought that was real encouraging with Jesse [James]. And we got the ball back in a four-minute situation at the end and didn’t give it back.
“If you do those things, you’re pretty happy.”
Funny, based on fan feedback, a lot of people seemed to disagree.
Martavis Bryant flashed his toothy grin. Moments earlier, he was playfully deriding a teammate in his corner of the Steelers locker room. Not long after that, another teammate approached to greet Bryant with a friendly handshake.
There is plenty the Steelers' dynamic young receiver missed during his yearlong banishment from the NFL. Settling back into the normal routine of a game week surrounded by the camaraderie of his peers ranks highly on that list.
“It's just fun to be back around my teammates,” Bryant said after Friday's practice. “I'm happy to see everybody; everybody's happy to see me. We're just working hard, man, and it feels good to be with them trying to win games and put it all together at the end of the year.”
The last time Bryant played in a regular-season game at Heinz Field, he set a career-high mark with 10 receptions in a big win against the Denver Broncos on December 20, 2015. Few could have known then that 22 months would elapse before Bryant would again appear in a meaningful game on the North Shore. But he will do so on Sunday against Minnesota.
Preparations for the game this past week provided Bryant with his first normal in-season game week since he was suspended for a year by the NFL for a violation of its substance-abuse policy. Even after Bryant was conditionally reinstated in the spring, the league prevented him from taking part in the first week's worth of training camp practices. It wasn't until Sept. 1 he was giving full clearance to participate in regular-season games.
With all that drama behind him, Bryant is back to being just one of the guys.
“It's good,” Bryant said. “It feels good to be working out with my team.”
Bryant's readjustment back to the NFL hasn't appeared to go as smoothly on the field as it has in the locker room, at least if his production in the season opener is any indication. Bryant was limited to two catches for 14 yards in Cleveland last Sunday.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt returned to the practice field Friday for the first time since injuring his biceps muscle on the second snap Sunday in the Steelers' 21-18 victory against the Cleveland Browns.
Tuitt said he did some running and other cardio exercises during practice, but did not have any contact and was held out of 11-on-11 drills.
Tuitt is listed as questionable to play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings at Heinz Field. But coach Mike Tomlin doesn't typically dress players having such limited practice time for the week.
“I've got today and tomorrow to try to get some stuff going,” said Tuitt, who has been doing rehab exercises to strengthen his arm and shoulder. “But we've got capable guys out there if I'm not able to go.”
Veteran Tyson Alualu would replace Tuitt in the starting lineup with L.T. Walton as the main backup on the defensive line. The Steelers had only four healthy defensive linemen after Tuitt exited against the Browns, but nose tackle Daniel McCullers could be activated against the Vikings.
“We did everything we were supposed to do throughout the week,” Tuitt said. “I'm staying positive. We have guys out there right now that have been putting in the work throughout the week to be ready and be prepared for Sunday.”