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What about the Steelers veterans? Part 4: Pass Rushers

What can last year’s defensive performances teach about the upcoming year

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This is part 3 of a four part* series, looking at the Steelers defensive performances from last year at several different points — from games 1 to 10 (when the Steelers were 10-0 and their defense was dominant), games 11 to 16 (during which the team fell to 2-4), and over the full season.

I compiled some individual stats during the extended postponement of the Thanksgiving contest aganst Baltimore, then again at the end of the year — looking especially at league rankings (using profootballreference.com as a guide). Then I did a little number crunching of my own and broke the lists down by conference and position.

Part 1: Inside Linebackers can be found HERE.
Part 2: Safeties can be found HERE
Part 3: Cornerbacks can be found HERE
This is the final edition: Pass Rushers


This Round: Pass Rushers

Philadelphia Eagles v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

This edition will likely be a bit messier than the other three essays. There are more ways of breaking down “pass rush,” and multiple position groups participate in each. I’ll try to keep it contained and concise.

Most of the comparisons will be made based on averages (i.e. “sacks per game” rather than “total sacks accumulated”), but before we dig in, let’s take a quick peak at the raw numbers.

Games 1 through 10

Player Age G GS Bltz Hrry QBHits QBKD Sk Prss
Player Age G GS Bltz Hrry QBHits QBKD Sk Prss
LINEBACKERS - - - - - - - - -
T.J. Watt 26 10 10 80 17 30 13 9 40
Bud Dupree 27 10 10 80 12 15 5 8 26
Robert Spillane 25 10 5 26 4 1 0 1 5
Alex Highsmith 23 10 0 16 3 1 0 1 4
Vince Williams 31 10 10 41 2 4 0 3 5
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN - - - - - - - - -
Stephon Tuitt 27 10 10 0 6 18 6 7 20
Cameron Heyward 31 10 10 0 6 14 11 2 20
SECONDARY - - - - - - - - -
Mike Hilton 26 6 3 28 1 5 1 3 5
“Hrry” = QB threw the ball earlier than intended or chased out of the pocket. “QB Hits” = defender made contact with QB but QB was not sacked. “QBKD” = QB hit the ground after the throw. “Prss” = hurries + knockdowns + all sack plays (note: sometimes these won’t appear to add up because a half sack will count as a pressure). All definitions and stats are calculated by Pro Football Reference.

Just a quick glance at these stats tells me one thing: T.J. Watt is an absolute monster. Goodness. Watt, Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, and Cameron Heyward all look fantastic here. But wow, T.J.

Games 11 through 16

Player Age G GS Bltz Hrry QBKD QBHits Sk Prss
Player Age G GS Bltz Hrry QBKD QBHits Sk Prss
LINEBACKERS - - - - - - - - -
T.J. Watt 26 5 5 11 2 13 11 6 21
Bud Dupree 27 1 1 1 0 2 0 0 2
Robert Spillane 25 2 2 4 0 1 2 1 2
Alex Highsmith 23 6 5 20 3 3 5 1 8
Vince Williams 31 4 4 6 0 1 0 0 1
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN - - - - - - - - -
Stephon Tuitt 27 5 5 0 4 8 7 4 16
Cameron Heyward 31 5 5 0 6 3 5 2 11
SECONDARY - - - - - - - - -
Mike Hilton 26 6 3 18 0 1 0 0 1

Over the last six games, Watt still looks like a man among boys (even on this defense, which, as you’ll see, was full of power players).

Full Season

Player Age G GS Bltz Hrry QBKD QBHits Sk Prss
Player Age G GS Bltz Hrry QBKD QBHits Sk Prss
LINEBACKERS - - - - - - - - -
T.J. Watt 26 15 15 91 19 26 41 15 61
Bud Dupree 27 11 11 81 12 7 15 8 28
Robert Spillane 25 12 7 30 4 1 3 2 7
Alex Highsmith 23 16 5 36 6 4 6 2 12
Vince Williams 31 14 14 47 2 1 4 3 6
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN - - - - - - - - -
Stephon Tuitt 27 15 15 0 10 14 25 11 36
Cameron Heyward 31 15 15 0 12 14 19 4 31
SECONDARY - - - - - - - - -
Mike Hilton 26 12 6 46 1 2 5 3 6

Not all of these players will be instructive in every category, but I wanted to give a baseline for the men who would be interesting before we start. On that note, Tyson Alualu will factor into some of the lists below. I didn’t track him in every category during week 10, so I didn’t have all of his numbers, but you’ll see him a few times below. Along with Alualu, this is the list of players who affected the Steelers 2020 pass rush the most.

You’ll notice that Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are included, though neither will play in Pittsburgh this fall. Alex Highsmith is also here, and his growth will make a huge difference in the defense as well. Hopefully looking through these numbers can give us some insight into what this will all add up to when the rubber hits the road in September.

Let’s go.


Sacks per Game

NFL: NOV 01 Steelers at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Games 1 through 10

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
3 2 1 1 T.J. Watt LB 10 10 80 9 0.9
6 3 3 2 Bud Dupree LB 10 10 80 8 0.8
77 32 20 9 Vince Williams LB 10 10 41 3 0.3
- - - - Robert Spillane LB 10 5 26 1 0.1
- - - - Alex Highsmith LB 10 0 16 1 0.1
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
10 5 6 3 Stephon Tuitt DL 10 10 0 7 0.7
90 40 54 29 Cameron Heyward DL 10 10 0 2 0.2
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DB AFC DB SECONDARY Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
75 30 2 1 Mike Hilton CB 6 3 28 3 0.5
Spillane and Highsmith were in such a massive tie that it made no sense to list the rankings.

Okay, first thing’s first: during the season’s opening 10 games, the Steelers had the AFC’s top two linebackers, top defensive back, and third best defensive lineman (with the 9th best linebacker too) in sacks. Holy crap.

Through seven weeks, the Steelers were on pace for 69 sacks (the NFL record is 72). At week 10, they were still headed for 61. That pace didn’t fall off too terribly (the team finished with 56). But this opening stretch was truly ferocious.

Games 11 through 16

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
- - - - T.J. Watt LB 5 5 11 6 1.2
- - - - Bud Dupree LB 1 1 1 0 0
- - - - Vince Williams LB 4 4 6 0 0
- - - - Robert Spillane LB 2 2 4 1 0.5
- - - - Alex Highsmith LB 6 5 20 1 0.2
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
- - - - Stephon Tuitt DL 5 5 0 4 0.8
- - - - Cameron Heyward DL 5 5 0 2 0.4
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DB AFC DB SECONDARY Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
- - - - Mike Hilton CB 6 3 18 0 0

These numbers are harder to make sense of without the rankings to help contextualize. So let me just point to a couple of observations:

1 - Watt, Spillane, Highsmith, Tuitt, and Heyward all increased their rate of getting sacks.

2 - Alex Highsmith was sent in on a blitz 20 times in the final six games, and Mike Hilton 18 times. Between them, they only got home once. Yikes.

3 - On the flip side, T.J. Watt only blitzed 11 times, and came away with six sacks. Six. Wow.

Full Season

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
1 1 1 1 T.J. Watt LB 15 15 91 15 1
24 8 9 3 Bud Dupree LB 11 11 81 8 0.7
115 50 36 17 Vince Williams LB 14 14 47 3 0.2
183 83 53 25 Robert Spillane LB 12 7 30 2 0.2
190 88 55 26 Alex Highsmith LB 16 5 36 2 0.1
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
8 3 5 2 Stephon Tuitt DL 15 15 0 11 0.7
79 35 79 26 Cameron Heyward DL 15 15 0 4 0.3
204 97 204 97 Tyson Alualu DL 15 10 0 2 0.1
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DB AFC DB SECONDARY Pos G GS Bltz Sk /gm
116 51 2 1 Mike Hilton cb 12 6 46 3 0.3

A team sporting T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Stephon Tuitt is a terrifying defense. Add in pressure up the middle from the inside linebackers and interior linemen, and frequent terror off the edge from the best corner-blitz in the NFL, and this team must have been nightmare fuel for opposing offsenses.


Hurries per Game

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Because of the sprawl of players and positions rushing the passer, I’m only highlighting those whose stats seem to reveal something. That’s why Vince Williams and Mike Hilton don’t appear here; neither registered enough Hurries to indicate much.

Games 1 through 10

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
2 1 2 1 T.J. Watt LB 10 10 80 17 1.7
8 6 3 2 Bud Dupree LB 10 10 80 12 1.2
86 40 17 5 Robert Spillane LB 10 5 26 4 0.4
120 60 29 11 Alex Highsmith LB 10 0 16 3 0.3
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
58 25 35 17 Stephon Tuitt DL 10 10 0 6 0.6
58 25 35 17 Cameron Heyward DL 10 10 0 6 0.6
A Hurry is any play where the QB is induced to throw the ball earlier than intended, or chased out of the pocket.

Watt and Dupree are looking more and more like a “Harrison/Woodley” or “Lloyd/Greene” pairing. These two really dominated as long as they both took the field. What a crime that Dupree tore up his knee.

Games 11 through 16

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB BY POSITION LB Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB BY POSITION LB Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
- - - - T.J. Watt LB 5 5 11 2 0.4
- - - - Bud Dupree LB 1 1 1 0 0
- - - - Robert Spillane LB 2 7 14 1 0.5
- - - - Alex Highsmith LB 6 0 10 2 0.3
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL BY POSITION Dline Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
- - - - Stephon Tuitt DL 5 5 0 4 0.8
- - - - Cameron Heyward DL 5 5 0 6 1.2

Ineresting to note: when Dupree went down in the season’s eleventh game, the Steelers’ defensive line began to carry more of the slack — forcing quarterbacks to unload passes early or run for their lives. This was a flexible defense.

(Side thought: the Steelers run defense faded down the stretch. I wonder if part of that can be attributed to the DL trying to pick up the slack from Dupree’s absense, rather than clogging rushing lanes. I don’t have the information to make a judgment on that, but it seems possible.)

Full Season

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
4 3 2 1 T.J. Watt LB 15 15 91 19 1.3
7 6 4 3 Bud Dupree LB 11 11 81 12 1.1
124 62 29 15 Robert Spillane LB 12 7 30 4 0.3
92 44 22 12 Alex Highsmith LB 16 5 36 6 0.4
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz Hrry /gm
42 24 29 18 Stephon Tuitt DL 15 15 0 10 0.7
27 17 18 12 Cameron Heyward DL 15 15 0 12 0.8

And once again, T.J. Watt distinguishes himself. Meanwhile, Tuitt, Heyward, and Dupree all look like Pro Bowlers as well. Four players in the top 22 of the AFC at forcing quarterbacks into a panic is a great look.

It might be harder to make sense of the rest, so here’s another way to unpack these numbers, particularly concerning Robert Spillane and Alex Highsmith: ask what percentage of their blitzes resulted in hurries. By that calculation, Watt forced a hurry on 20.9% of the plays he was sent on a blitz. Second on the team, believe it or not, was Alex Highsmith, who forced a hurry on 16.7% of his blitzes. Bud Dupree, meanwhile, forced a hurry 14.8% of the time. (Spillane: 13.3%.)

This isn’t a perfect metric — it obviously doesn’t apply to the D-Linemen, who are never technically blitzers. But perhaps it can help make sense of these more elusive numbers.


Quarterback Hits per Game

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, several Steelers players were involved in massive ties, so I didn’t bother listing the rankings for them. I’ve included them for comparison purposes.

Games 1 through 10

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS QBHits /GM
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS QBHits /GM
1 1 1 1 T.J. Watt LB 10 10 30 3.0
14 8 4 3 Bud Dupree LB 10 10 15 1.5
127 59 30 15 Vince Williams LB 10 10 4 0.4
- - - - Robert Spillane LB 10 5 1 0.1
- - - - Alex Highsmith LB 10 0 1 0.1
- - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS QBHits /GM
3 3 2 2 Stephon Tuitt DL 10 10 18 1.8
19 11 13 8 Cameron Heyward DL 10 10 14 1.4
- - - - Tyson Alualu DL 9 6 3 0.3
- - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DB AFC DB SECONDARY Pos G GS QBHits /GM
107 51 2 1 Mike Hilton CB 6 3 5 0.8
“QB Hits” occur when a quarterback is contacted, but not knocked down. (A “QB knockdown” happens when a quarterback is knocked down after the throw. A sack, I suspect most of you know.)

Okay, I’m going to stop freaking out about the level of dominance I’m seeing here. But seriously — look at these guys. The Steelers had four players who are in the top 5 in the league at their positions, and four players in the top 20 of the entire league (regardless of position).

Here’s the deal: if you were a quarterback playing against the Steelers last year, you’d better have the ice tub set up, along with a team of physical therapists (and maybe some psychotherapists too). You were going to need it.

Games 11 through 16

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS QBHits /GM
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS QBHits /GM
- - - - T.J. Watt LB 5 5 11 2.2
- - - - Bud Dupree LB 1 1 0 0
- - - - Vince Williams LB 4 4 0 0
- - - - Robert Spillane LB 2 2 2 1
- - - - Alex Highsmith LB 6 5 5 0.8
- - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS QBHits /GM
- - - - Stephon Tuitt DL 5 5 7 1.4
- - - - Cameron Heyward DL 5 5 5 1
- - - - Tyson Alualu DL 6 4 2 0.3
- - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DB AFC DB SECONDARY Pos G GS QBHits /GM
- - - - Mike Hilton CB 6 3 0 0

Quarterback hits collapsed in the final six weeks. This is the first category in which the Steelers defense really seemed to slip. These aren’t numbers that most of us really understand, so let me present it this way:

We know that the Steelers recorded fewer sacks as the season dragged on, which means that fewer QBs were hitting the ground before they could throw the ball. That might result in a rise in QB hits, in which a quarterback is hit but manages to get the ball out. Instead, the opposite occurred. The Steelers were simply putting fewer hands on opposing QBs.

To put it another way, during the first ten games, the Steelers players listed above combined for 9.4 QB hits per game; during the final six, they registered 6.7. Removing Bud Dupree’s 1.5 hits undoubtedly made a difference in that number. I suspect that, more importantly, his disruption freed up other players across the field to make contact.

Full Season

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS QBHits /GM
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS QBHits /GM
1 1 1 1 T.J. Watt LB 15 15 41 2.7
14 8 4 3 Bud Dupree LB 11 11 15 1.4
202 94 57 28 Vince Williams LB 14 14 4 0.3
220 104 62 31 Robert Spillane LB 12 7 3 0.3
155 71 43 21 Alex Highsmith LB 16 5 6 0.4
- - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS QBHits /GM
8 6 7 5 Stephon Tuitt DL 15 15 25 1.7
20 13 14 8 Cameron Heyward DL 15 15 19 1.3
174 81 101 51 Tyson Alualu DL 15 10 5 0.3
- - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DB AFC DB SECONDARY Pos G GS QBHits /GM
152 69 2 1 Mike Hilton CB 12 6 5 0.4

The late-season slide is troubling, but looking at the numbers, this is still a position of power for the Steelers defense.


QB Knockdowns per Game

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

“QB Knockdowns” denote instances where the quarterback was knocked down after delivering a pass (as opposed to “QB Hits,” which imply contact, but not a post-pass fall).

Games 1 through 10

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
2 2 1 1 T.J. Watt LB 10 10 80 13 1.3
44 23 10 6 Bud Dupree LB 10 10 80 5 0.5
- - - - Alex Highsmith LB 10 0 16 0 0
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
4 4 3 3 Cameron Heyward DL 10 10 0 11 1.1
34 18 25 13 Stephon Tuitt DL 10 10 0 6 0.6

Reveling in T.J. Watt’s dominance feels old-hat at this point, so instead, let’s take a look at Cam Heyward. Conventional wisdom suggests that players decline after 30, but Heyward (31 in 2020) somehow keeps getting better.

Games 11 through 16

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
- - - - T.J. Watt LB 5 5 11 13 2.6
- - - - Bud Dupree LB 1 1 1 2 2
- - - - Alex Highsmith LB 6 5 20 4 0.7
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
- - - - Cameron Heyward DL 5 5 0 3 0.6
- - - - Stephon Tuitt DL 5 5 0 8 1.6

Heyward’s success in this department sunk a bit in the season’s final six weeks, but Stephon Tuitt picked up that slack, and then some. Neither Bud Dupree nor Alex Highsmith were particularly impressive at getting the hit from opposite Watt.

(I have thoughts about Highsmith, which I think I’m going to have to write into an addendum article so this doesn’t get too long.)

Full Season

NFL AFC NFL AFC LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
NFL AFC NFL AFC LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
1 1 1 1 T.J. Watt LB 15 15 91 26 1.7
43 26 7 6 Bud Dupree LB 11 11 81 7 0.6
134 63 43 22 Alex Highsmith LB 16 5 36 4 0.3
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL AFC DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz QBKD /gm
15 9 11 6 Cameron Heyward DL 15 15 0 14 0.9
16 10 12 7 Stephon Tuitt DL 15 15 0 13 0.9

I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of this category — maybe Bud Dupree was really good at putting on the breaks as soon as the ball was delivered, so he hurried quarterbacks a lot, but rarely ever touched them after the pass? Overall, the Steelers were one of the lesser-penalized teams in football this past year. Defensive dominance is not always demonstrated by chaotic abandon. Just as often, it’s a controlled fury. This bunch had plenty of discipline.


Pressures per Game

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Spillane and Highsmith were again engaged in massive ties. I’ve included their numbers for comparison.

Games 1 through 10

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
1 1 1 1 T.J. Watt LB 10 10 80 40 4
9 6 3 2 Bud Dupree LB 10 10 80 26 2.6
- - - - Alex Highsmith LB 10 0 16 4 0.4
- - - - Robert Spillane LB 10 5 26 5 0.5
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
18 12 11 8 Stephon Tuitt DL 10 10 0 20 2
18 12 11 8 Cameron Heyward DL 10 10 0 20 2
- - - - - - - - - - -
“Pressure” includes sacks, hurries, and QB knockdowns. The numbers won’t always seem to add up because players will be credited with a “pressure” for a half-sack or a solo sack. (That is, two half-sacks will register as “1.0 sacks” in a stat line, but it will be “2 pressures”; meanwhile, a solo sack will also register as “1.0 sacks,” but will count as “1 pressure.)

Taking sacks, hurries, and QB Knockdowns altogether, the Steelers had four of the top 18 players in the NFL (regardless of position) over the first ten games.

If we’re just thinking of the starting 11 on each team (which, of course, is a very conservative count, since backups and replacements often perform at league levels), there are 352 starting defenders in the NFL. Through 10 weeks, the Steelers had four players in the league’s top 5%.

I’m tempted to keep parsing these numbers, but let’s just say: this was just such a great defense.

Games 11 through 16

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Tm Age Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKERS Tm Age Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
- - - - T.J. Watt PIT 26 LB 5 5 11 21 4.2
- - - - Bud Dupree PIT 27 LB 1 1 1 2 2
- - - - Alex Highsmith PIT 23 LB 6 5 20 8 1.3
- - - - Robert Spillane PIT 25 LB 2 2 4 2 1
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Tm Age Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
- - - - Stephon Tuitt PIT 27 DL 5 5 0 16 3.2
- - - - Cameron Heyward PIT 31 DL 5 5 0 11 2.2
- - - - - - - - - - - - -

As the Steelers sack numbers dipped in the final six weeks, their pressures climbed a bit. In other words, the pass rush continued to roll, even if traditional metrics didn’t reflect it.

(Side note: this category also emphasizes something limiting about stats like these. I recently read that Pro Football Focus had credited Alex Highsmith with 17 pressures in the season’s final five games, whereas I’ve got him with eight over the final six. I don’t know how they calculate such things, but clearly their numbers are different than Pro Football Reference, from which I tracked mine. I refuse to subscribe to PFF, so I can’t vouch for any of their methods. But these unofficial measures (pressures, hurries, etc.) are slightly slapdash. They present more of an overall picture than a precise statement. In other words, the fact that T.J. Watt is so dominant on all these lists is more important than the actual number of hurries he accumulated over a six-game period...)

Full Season

NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
NFL AFC NFL LB AFC LB LINEBACKER Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
1 1 1 1 T.J. Watt LB 15 15 91 61 4.1
8 5 3 2 Bud Dupree LB 11 11 81 28 2.5
136 61 36 18 Alex Highsmith LB 16 5 36 12 0.8
177 84 47 24 Robert Spillane LB 12 7 30 7 0.6
224 110 61 32 Vince Williams LB 14 14 47 6 0.4
- - - - - - - - - - -
NFL AFC NFL DL AFC DL DEFENSIVE LINE Pos G GS Bltz Prss /gm
10 6 7 4 Stephon Tuitt DE 15 15 0 36 2.4
19 12 12 8 Cameron Heyward DT 15 15 0 31 2.1
203 99 118 59 Tyson Alualu nt 15 10 0 8 0.5
- - - - - - - - - - -

Pressure is probably the best statistical gauge for a pass rusher, since it counts so many different metrics. With that in mind, notice how the Steelers’ “big 4” were all in the top 20 in the NFL (regardless of position) at generating pressure. This wasn’t just the team that led the league in sacks (for the third straight year, ahem); it was by far the best team at simply harrassing quarterbacks from kickoff to gun.

Let’s talk for a minute about position too:

It might not be obvious from this list, but Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are the most effective defensive line pairing in the NFL. In fact, the only other team with two D-Linemen in the top 30 is Cleveland (Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon). But let’s be clear: Garrett and Vernon play in a 4-3 defense, which makes them more “edge defenders” than simply “defensive linemen.” Heyward’s and Tuitt’s successes are truly remarkable, given the way Pittsburgh’s line is usually deployed — as space-eating interior linemen.

How about linebackers? Well, it turns out that T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were also the NFL’s most disruptive linebacking duo. Frankly, there’s no real argument in this category. It’s disappointing, in retrospect, how little the NFL talking heads seemed to notice this. These two really were in a class by themselves.

On that note, if you ever wanted to gauge how disruptive T.J. Watt was in 2020, notice that Bud Dupree was the second best LB in the AFC in this category, according to PFR, and he logged almost 40% fewer pressures per game than Watt.

(Bonus: Watt’s 61 overall pressures led the league by a huge margin as well. Second place was a tie between Joey Bosa and Aaron Donald, with 45. That +16 margin is the largest difference between #1 and #2 since PFR started compiling this stat four years ago.)

Dammit. Because I can’t stop gushing. Here’s a quick short-hand of Watt’s rankings this past season (including tackles for a loss, which I didn’t mention above). I know Donald is a fantastic football player, but can someone explain to me again why Watt wasn’t the DPOY?

T.J. Watt 2020, full season rankings

T.J. Watt NFL overall AFC overall NFL LB AFC LB
T.J. Watt NFL overall AFC overall NFL LB AFC LB
Sacks/gm 1 1 1 1
Pressures/gm 1 1 1 1
Hurries/gm 4 3 2 1
QB KD/gm 1 1 1 1
QB Hits/gm 1 1 1 1
TFL/gm 1 1 1 1
Seriously. This is just absurd.

In any case, considering the dominance of Steelers corners, safeties, and coverage ILBs, passing against this defense was like playing catch through a hurricane, complete with flying aluminum debris and terror.


I’m not sure what we learned here, other than “omigod these guys are good.” However, I did have two more thoughts, and they’re probably going to have to come in another essay. I want to talk about the run defense from this front-seven, and I want to talk about Alex Highsmith. So I guess this is a five- or six-round series. Stay tuned. Go Steelers.