The Pittsburgh Steelers have done something on defense over the past three seasons which they have never done before. Eclipsing in the 50-sack mark for the third season in a row, not only have the Steelers not accomplished this steak before, but no team had been able to complete the streak in almost 20 years. But is there even more in the tank for this defense?
I decided to go out on a limb and make a bold prediction that the Steelers will get to 60 sacks in 2020. First and foremost, there must be a 16-game NFL season. Being like everyone else who has been pushing forward through our difficult social situation with the current pandemic, I do my best to live my life being hopeful of things in the distant future but mindful of how things could change. With that said, I am still holding out for a full NFL season in 2020.
If this is the case and we get 16 regular-season games by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020, it will be their last chance to hit the elusive 60 sack mark in this number of games. Unless the NFL changes course and delays the implementation of going to 17 games, 2020 will be the last season under the current regular season format from when it changed from 14 games back in 1978 (other than 2 years where games were missed due to strikes).
The last time a team reached 60 sacks in a season was seven years ago when the Carolina Panthers hit the mark in 2013. It was seven years prior to the Panthers the last time any team hit the number, but it was two teams in 2006 with the Chargers notching 61 sacks and the Baltimore Ravens getting 60. The only other time since the turn of the century was the New Orleans Saints who had 66 sacks in the year 2000. Achieving 60 sacks in a season used to not be the large number it appears to be at this time. From 1984 through 1986 it was achieved 12 times over the three-year span.
Now that the history lesson is over, what does this mean for the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers? First of all, it shows that it’s possible. But where will those sacks come from?
With the Steelers registering 54 sacks in 2020, they would obviously need six more in order to hit the mark. But the Steelers also lost some of their production from the 2019 season. Most notably, Javon Hargrave and his four sacks in 2019 is now providing his services for the Philadelphia Eagles. Other losses were Mark Barron who had three sacks in 2019 and Anthony Chickillo only had 0.5 on the season.
Assuming all the players retained by the Steelers have similar production in 2020, it is possible to make up for these losses as well as gain another six. Stephon Tuitt only played in six games in 2019 but registered 3.5 sacks. Using his average per game and rounding down, he projects to match Cameron Heyward’s nine sacks. This alone would gain the Steelers another 5.5 sacks. As for the loss of Mark Barron, hopefully the other inside linebackers could help cover the production as Vince Williams had 2.5 sacks in 2019 as well as Devin Bush who registered 1.0. With Williams being a player who had eight sacks two years prior, thinking he could pick up another one or two is not a big deal. And if Devin Bush is utilized more in the pass rush from time to time in 2020, he could easily pick up another one or two. Also, which player definitely fills in the role of Mark Barron has yet to be determined and they would have the opportunity to add to the production.
One of the most disappointing statistics from 2019 was the Steelers only registered 0.5 sacks from the outside linebacker position which did not come from Bud Dupree or T.J. Watt. Regardless of whatever players end up earning the opportunity for the snaps vacated by Anthony Chickillo, I hope they could register at least one sack on the season.
So with the return of Stephon Tuitt helping to cover other losses, the Steelers appear to be right there in the mix to repeat their production, if not improve it, for the 2020 season.
But does the change in their opponents factor in favorably?
Of the five opponents the Steelers had five or more sacks in a game last season, they play three of them again in 2020 including the Cincinnati Bengals where the Steelers registered eight sacks in a single game last year. While looking at the fewest sacks in a game the Steelers had in 2019, there were five opponents in which the Steelers only registered one sack and four of those teams they do not play this coming season.
In all, there are eight teams the Steelers will play in 2020 who they did not play in 2019. In looking at last year‘s data, these eights new matchups were sacked a total of 13 times more than the eight teams the Steelers will not play again in 2020. So, based on last season, the Steelers are playing teams who are more likely to give up sacks than the ones who will no longer be on their schedule next season.
According to the numbers, reaching the 60 sack mark in 2020 for the Pittsburgh Steelers is not an unreasonable goal. With a defensive front who should be improved based on the return of Stephon Tuitt, and what could be a slightly greater opportunity to increase their sacks based on their opponents, the possibility is right in front of them. All that is remaining is the most important issue: Continuing to execute their pass rush in order to produce sacks on the field.