The outside linebacker (OLB) has been a fabled position for the Pittsburgh Steelers ever since Bill Cowher took over as Head Coach in 1992. With names like Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley manning the position for 20 years, it’s easy to see why.
The 2012 season marked a drop off for the Steelers fabled OLB position. Harrison and Woodley would record a combined 10 sacks, a number equaled by Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote, as age and injury slowed one of the most feared pairs of edge rushers the league had ever seen. It was the first of 6 straight seasons without a Steeler OLB getting more than 8 sacks. Since 1992 the Steelers hadn’t gone 3 seasons in a row without at least 9 sacks from an OLB. This unprecedented dry spell wouldn’t end until last year, 2018, when TJ Watt recorded 13 sacks, the most since Woodley’s 13.5 sacks in 2009.
In 2013, Woodley would play his last season for the Steelers, alongside new starter Jason Worilds and rookie first round pick Jarvis Jones. In 2014, James Harrison returned from the Bengals and Arthur Moats joined the team as Woodley left. In 2015, Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo were drafted and Worilds retired. That group would stay in place for 2016. In 2017, TJ Watt joined via the draft and Jarvis Jones left while James Harrison would find a way to get kicked off the team. In 2018, Arthur Moats was replaced by UDFA Olasunkanmi Adeniyi. That covers all of the OLBs that have played significant snaps from 2013 to today.
So let’s look at the stats.
I wanted to look at impact plays, so this look will only be considering sacks, tackles for a loss, QB hits, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, passes defended and interceptions.
It’s not hard to see that T.J. Watt leads almost every category, trailing only in fumble recoveries and tackles for loss. Watt is the best pass rusher the Steelers have had since Woodley and Harrison were still tearing up the NFL, and he also makes plays in coverage, leading the list in passes defended and tied for the lead in interceptions.
I included snap counts because I wanted to also look at per-snap production. Per-snap production accounts for opportunities to produce, since it takes a pretty big error by the stats team for a player to get a sack while on the bench (it has happened) there is value in looking at production per snap. It is not a perfect measurement, but it is a good contrast to the regular counting stats.
Here’s the same stats, but listed as production per 1000 snaps, which ends up pretty close to a full season’s worth of defensive snaps if the player never left the field on defense.
There’s a good bit of interesting information on this chart. For one, old man James Harrison shows why he stuck around for as long as he did, because when the Steelers limited his usage he was still able to produce at a high rate, ranking second in sacks and QB hits and first in tackles for loss and interceptions per snap.
Another interesting bit is Jason Worilds coming in first in QB hits on the list. Jason Worilds never had a good partner on the other side of the field, playing with a shell of LaMarr Woodley, Jarvis Jones and old James Harrison. Knowing how the sacks would increase with Keith Butler taking over and Bud Dupree joining the position in 2015, I have always wondered how he would have produced if QBs were pinned in the pocket and couldn’t get away from him as easily. Seeing his rate of getting to the QB here makes me even more convinced he was better then the circumstances let him be.
Meanwhile Jarvis Jones ranks far below Anthony Chickillo and Arthur Moats in everything but pass defense. Jarvis Jones wasn’t good at getting to the QB or stuffing RBs for a loss, but he was always good at getting his hands up in the passing lanes.
Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo put up very similar production in their snaps, even looking at this season, where Bud looks much better than he has in the past, his numbers are right around his career average and behind Chickillo’s. Dupree’s numbers are boosted quite a bit by his great 2016, where for 318 snaps he was producing stats as frequently as TJ Watt did in his amazing 2018 season.
Olasunkanmi Adeniyi has yet to produce any stats in his few snaps, even as he has looked better on film. I did look up Tuzar Skipper’s stats and adjust them per snap, but I’m not going to list them. I will tell you that his garbage time half a sack and one QB hit in so few snaps would rank him as significantly better than T.J. Watt and likely better than James Harrison in his prime. Which really does make you wonder why the Patriots let the Giants claim such an amazing talent...
I wanted to make this article since the preseason and the debate over which OLBs to keep on the 53 man roster, and thought the bye week would be a great time to make it. While it wasn’t a factor in the creation of this post, the Anthony Chickillo arrest makes it a little more interesting to see what kind of production the Steelers will need to replace with Chickillo being placed on the Commissioner's Exempt List.