Keith Butler took over for Dick LeBeau in 2015 after the Steelers defense dropped to 18th in scoring defense and 26th in sacks. The numbers improved right away. Here’s the Steelers rank in scoring defense and sacks for each year since Butler took charge of the defense.
2015: 11th points, 3rd sacks
2016: 10th points, 9th sacks
2017: 7th points, 1st sacks
2018: 16th points, 1st sacks
2019: 5th points, 1st sacks
2020: 3rd points, 1st sacks
2021: 13th points, 1st sacks
2022: 15th points, 12th sacks
Butler retired after 2021 and Teryl Austin took over. The Steelers through Week 4 have not been great defensively, but the biggest drop off isn’t listed above.
The Steelers under LeBeau focused on stopping the run first and foremost. The move in the NFL to quicker passing games made it hard for the Steelers to get pressure on the quarterback in LeBeau’s defense where players were reading the run first, then rushing the passer. Butler changed that approach and had the defensive linemen jump in on pass rush much more than under LeBeau, and it paid off right away. His only season outside the Top 5 in sacks was in 2016 when Cam Heyward and Bud Dupree each missed over half the season. Dupree finished second on the team to James Harrison’s 5 sacks with 4.5 sacks, despite only playing in 7 games.
With both Heyward and Dupree healthy, and the Steelers adding T.J. Watt in 2017, they kicked off five straight seasons leading the league in sacks. There is a cost to that strategy in run defense, and the Steelers were fine with that as the NFL has become a pass-heavy league and run defense is a statistic which no longer correlates to winning.
LeBeau’s defenses finished in the Top 3 in run defense in 10 of his 13 seasons as the defensive coordinator, and only fell outside of the Top 10 once. Here’s how the run defense ranks afterwards.
You can look at both lists and see the Steelers best scoring defenses of the Butler era ranked 14th and 11th in run defense, while LeBeau’s final years in Pittsburgh the run defense was still good, but the defense was giving up far too many points.
I wanted to make this clear, because focusing on run defense at the expense of your ability to defend the pass is dumb in the current NFL, and yet having a bottom 10 run defense is also a recipe for failure.
And that brings us to the point of this article, how the Steelers were able to rush the passer so effectively while defending the run, and what changed in 2021 to put the Steelers in the situation they are in now.
Steelers vs. Rams, 2019
The Steelers defensive line in 2019 was a force to be reckoned with. Look at the pocket being collapsed on the quarterback. Jared Goff drops 9 yards behind the line of scrimmage and Tyson Alualu is driving the Rams center into the quarterback’s face almost immediately. Bud Dupree also crashes inside and while those two are collapsing the middle of the pocket T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward off his stunt get to the quarterback. Nothing a quarterback can do here, the four-man rush is devastating.
Steelers at Bengals, 2019
The Steelers run two stunts, in the middle and to the right. Javon Hargrave is the one to get free this time and he forces an incomplete pass.
Steelers vs. Ravens, 2019
The Steelers switch to their over front on this play, with Heyward playing defensive end to the right and T.J. Watt lining up in the middle of the line. The Steelers have their outside linebackers and three defensive lineman against six blockers and the Steelers dominate, the inside linebackers don’t need to do anything here. Heyward and Watt both win against double teams, Hargrave comes free and Tuitt drives his man to the ground and makes the stop.
In 2021 the linebackers ability to take on offensive lineman blocking became a big story, but here? No one touches either inside linebacker and they don’t even need to get involved. the front 5 have it.
Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, Tyson Alualu formed a top tier defensive line and a big part of the strength of the Steelers defense.
In 2022? It’s not the same. I could show a lot of clips of defensive lineman losing to blockers and giant run lanes, but I’m going to take a different approach, and look at some good plays from the defense.
Steelers at Bengals, 2022
This sack occurs because Heyward wins his matchup and is able to chase Joe Burrow down. This isn’t a collapsing pocket. This pressure is based on one player making a great play.
Steelers vs. Jets, 2022
This is from early in the game against the Jets, and it is Zach Wilson’s first real action of the 2022 season. He panics a bit early here and runs into the sack when his pocket isn’t even in bad shape.
Steelers at Bengals, 2022
The Steelers run two rushers at the same gap and get push from it, but that just opens up a lane for Joe Burrow to run through to convert on this third and 5.
The Steelers defensive line has declined since 2019. Cameron Heyward is still very good, but he’s banged up and is not getting younger. Larry Ogunjobi is solid, but he’s not Tuitt or even Hargrave. Alualu returning from his injury last year hasn’t been the same player he was. The Steelers defensive line doesn’t have the same impact it used to.
When T.J. Watt is healthy his individual excellence is enough to drive the success of the pass rush, when he isn’t healthy the Steelers pass rush cannot generate pressure on 4-man rushes and often even struggles to generate pressure when they do blitz.
In 2019 and 2020 the Steelers pass rush generated pressure with 4-man rushes, collapsing the pocket from the middle and pressuring from the edge. Those Steeler teams forced offenses to keep extra blockers in to protect their quarterbacks, and the Steelers would use green dog blitzes to offset that extra protection.
Here’s the pressure and Blitz rate rankings for the Steelers from 2019 to 2022:
2019: Blitz 7th, Pressure 1st
2020: Blitz 3rd, Pressure 1st
2021: Blitz 17th, Pressure 8th
2022: Blitz 14th, Pressure 24th
In 2021, with the defensive line not nearly as good as it had been with players missing due to injury the Steelers had to dial back the blitzing and rely on T.J. Watt to pick up the slack. In 2022, without Watt the Steelers can’t reliably get pressure with a 4-man rush, and even when they blitz, they aren’t getting pressure, they are just taking defenders out of coverage.
This play hurts. Zach Wilson evades the rush around the edge by stepping up in the pocket three times before throwing the ball. A few years ago the Steelers generated a lot of sacks because the quarterback not only couldn’t step up in the pocket, but had defenders in his face up the middle. When a quarterback can’t step up, and can only stand back there or move laterally it makes the job of an edge rusher easy. You know where they are, you just have to get there. On a 1st and 20, instead of a sack making it 2nd and 27, it becomes 2nd and 9 and the Jets would convert on their way to the game winning touchdown.
The struggles on the Steelers defense almost all relate to the decline of the defensive line, and that has created the dynamic we see with T.J. Watt correlating to wins. T.J. Watt’s playmaking can cover for a lot of the defensive line’s drop off, but when he’s not in those struggles and weaknesses are glaring.
The defensive line not getting push on the pocket makes it almost impossible to get pressure with a 4-man rush, and when blitzing there are more opportunities for the quarterback to evade pressure and make a play.
In run defense the defensive line struggles puts much more emphasis on linebackers who not only need to stop the runner, but also have to deal with blockers much more often. That led to Minkah Fitzpatrick leading the team in run stops in 2021 from his free safety position.
Because the linebackers have a much harder run defense job, they have to react to run plays quickly to try and beat blockers to the run lanes, and that means the Steelers are highly susceptible to play-action passes because the middle of the field is wide open with both linebackers jumping the potential run.
It’s hard to see the defensive line really improving this season, and the Steelers are going to really struggle until Watt is back and healthy enough to cover for it. But the real solution is going to have to come after the season ends when the Steelers have a chance to add young, high-end talent to the defensive line. Because that’s how they built that line in the first place.
Cameron Heyward: 1st round, 2011
Stephon Tuitt: 2nd round 2014
Javon Hargrave: 3rd round, 2016
Since the 2016 NFL Draft, here is every DL draft pick:
2017: No pick
2018: Joshua Frazier, 7th round
2019: Isaiah Buggs, 6th round
2020: Carlos Davis, 7th round
2021: Isaiahh Loudermilk, 5th round
2022: DeMarvin Leal, 3rd round
DeMarvin Leal, as a rookie, has been moving up the depth chart in snap counts. From 5th in DL snaps in Week 1 to 3rd in defensive line snaps in Week 4.
He looks like a good pick who could really pay off. But he’s not enough. Tyson Alualu isn’t the same player he was and at 35, and it is questionable if he can get back to that level. Cam Heyward is 33 and playing hurt. He is still winning the war with time, but that won’t last forever. Larry Ogunjobi is 28, but is on a one-year deal. The Steelers need to address the defensive line in a big way, or the defensive struggles we saw in 2021 and again this season will only get worse.
This was the topic of my Cutting Room Floor podcast this week, one where I dive head-first into the stats and the reasons for the Steelers’ defensive struggles. Listen in the player below: