The Pittsburgh Steelers defense put up some great numbers last season. What would probably top the list is their overall sack totals, setting a new franchise record for most total sacks in a regular season.
However, with their success came some issues. Under Keith Butler, the outside linebackers were used differently than under Dick LeBeau. LeBeau’s pass rush featured the bookend linebackers, while Butler prefers his defensive line to be the pass rushers, asking his outside linebackers to drop into coverage more and more.
Along the way, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, the starting tandem at the position, were having difficulty beating their opposition and getting to the quarterback clean. So, what do you do?
Try flipping them.
After one week of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), the Steelers have been moving Dupree and Watt around, giving them experience at the other position. This doesn’t equate to a permanent change for either player, but gives them the ability to be moved if they feel a matchup can be exploited.
So, is switching from one side to the other easy, or difficult? According to T.J. Watt, it isn’t really that big of a deal.
“Whenever I work, I always work on both sides because you never bank on playing just one side,” Watt told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I practiced left and right so if the time came, I would be ready.”
Watt didn’t make a big deal out of the coaching staff moving them during the voluntary workouts.
“It’s just a comfortability thing just to see if we can play both sides,” Watt said. “We did it a few times last year. To go up against the same guy throughout a game, if you’re not getting in a groove, why not flip us on the other side and get a little different feel for it?”
Regardless of how Butler uses the linebackers compared to LeBeau, in the 3-4 defense the outside linebackers are expected to get pressure on the quarterback. In 2017, Dupree and Watt combined for 13 sacks: Watt had 7 to Dupree’s 6. Although not horrible, Watt expects more.
“An outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, you’re meant to be a splash player,” he said. “I want to make more splash plays.”
There is a chance he will be attempting these splash plays against right tackles, at times, this season, but don’t tell Watt it will be any easier.
“Every single tackle starting in the NFL is a damn good player,” he said. “I don’t think you can look past who is better — left tackle or right tackle. … At this level, the right tackle is damn good, too.”
Like many aspects of the Steelers’ defense, how, and where, they deploy their outside linebackers will be something to watch.
Stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black-and-gold as they move through the offseason preparing for the 2018 regular season.