The Steelers have led the NFL, or tied for the lead, each of the last five seasons. The Steelers drafted T.J. Watt in 2017. That season Keith Butler’s blitzing defense led the NFL in sacks, setting a Steeler franchise record with 56 sacks. The Steelers then recorded between 52 and 56 sacks each of the next four seasons, no team had more sacks in any of those seasons.
The previous record for leading the NFL in sacks in consecutive seasons was three, meaning the Steelers already owned the record and added to it in 2021. In that sense, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 2017-2021 stand above every other team in NFL history in sacking the quarterback. But while the Steelers have led the NFL in sacks the last five years, forty-six other NFL teams have beat the Steelers single-season franchise record of 56 (2017, 2020). Teams just aren’t getting 60 or 70 sacks in a season anymore.
Comparing teams from different eras
It isn’t easy to compare teams that played in very different time periods. It’s hard to compare individual players from different time periods. So many things change across the NFL, number of teams, number of games in a season, changes in the rules, evolutions in offensive and defensive strategy. It makes it tough to compare the Steelers in 2021 to the Steelers of 1975.
There’s no perfect way to adjust for differences over time, but one of the best is to find a way to compare a team to its peers that can then be used to compare teams of different time periods. For example, it’s easy to compare teams across time periods based on whether they won a Super Bowl or not. The argument isn’t hard to make that a team that was the best team in 1970 should be ranked above any team from any other year that wasn’t the best team in their time. In the same way we can say the Steelers leading the league in sacks five seasons in a row mean they have the best 5-year run of any team by sacks.
But we can do better than that. Another way to adjust across time is to compare production to league average. This isn’t hard to do. Take the number of sacks that happened in an NFL season, divide it by the number of teams in the NFL that season, and you get the average sacks per team for that season. Divide any team’s sack count by that average and you will get that team’s percentage of league average sacks.
For example, Dick LeBeau’s last season in the NFL the 2014 Steelers recorded 33 sacks. That year across the NFL there were 1212 sacks. Divide 1212 by 32 teams in the NFL that season and you get 37.9. Divide 33 by 37.9 and you get .871. Meaning that in 2014 the Steelers recorded only 87.1% of the sacks that an average NFL team would. It also makes sense why the Steelers asked LeBeau to retire from the position after that season. 2014 happened to be the 2nd lowest percentage of average sacks the Steelers recorded since Bill Cowher took over the team, the lowest was in 2013, when the Steelers recorded 34 sacks, but the NFL average was higher at 40.5 sacks per team.
Now that we have a measurement for how to compare teams from different time periods, let’s get to the actual numbers.
The best seasons for sacks in Steelers history
Armed with a tool to compare any season to any other season in NFL history, we can look at the best seasons in Steelers history for sacks. The best ranking of the last five years comes in 2020, when the Steelers tied their 2017 franchise record of 56 sacks, but in a season where sacks dropped 5% across the NFL. That 2020 season ranks 3rd in Steelers history, while the 2017 season ranks 5th. In between those two teams, with 51 sacks and a Super Bowl Championship, sits one of the greatest defenses of all time, the 2008 Steelers.
That very quickly gives us three of the top 5 Steelers teams for sacks. The top 2 come from different eras and represent a couple of very good and iconic defenses. In 1994 the Steelers would fall one game short of reaching the Super Bowl, but recorded 55 sacks, leading the NFL for the season by a good margin. It still annoys me that the Steelers were by far the best passing defense in the NFL that season, and lost to a run-first team in the AFC Championship, and that team was blown out in the Super Bowl by a team that threw the ball a ton. Would have loved to see Rod Woodson covering Jerry Rice and Lloyd and Green terrorizing Steve Young in the Super Bowl. But enough about the biggest disappointment of my teenage years. Let’s move on to the #1 team.
Everyone should be able to guess the #1 team within a few guesses. We’d probably get a good number of 1976 guesses, and some 1978 guesses as well, but while those teams led the NFL in scoring defense, it was the 1974 Steelers that led the NFL in sacks. It was the only season a Chuck Noll coached team would pull that off. Those 1974 Steelers got after the quarterback at a ridiculous pace, recording 52 sacks in 14 games, the equivalent of 61.7 sacks in a 16 game season, or 65.6 over 17 games.
So while the 2017 and 2020 Steelers share the Steelers franchise record for sacks, it is the 1974 Steelers, with 3.9 sacks per game that were the most productive, per game and compared to the rest of the NFL.
Here’s the top 10 seasons for sacks in Steelers history, compared to their peers.
Three of the Steelers last five seasons rank in the top ten all-time for the franchise. The 2018 and 2019 seasons rank 15th and 14th respectively.
Looking at those top ten teams, you see all three of the Pittsburgh Steelers post-merger coaches represented, as well as a variety of defensive coordinators. To add one more thing, I wanted to list the teams with their coaches, defensive coordinators and team leader in sacks.
*Dom Capers was the Steelers defensive coordinator in 1994. The author of this article apologizes for the error.
Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher each show up three times, Mike Tomlin shows up four. Bud Carson and Dick LeBeau show up twice each, Keith Butler three times. T.J. Watt is the only player to show up more than once on this list.
In 2022 we will get to see if Mike Tomlin, Teryl Austin and T.J. Watt can continue the streak and maybe knock the 1972 Steelers out of the top 10. I don’t know if it will happen, but I really enjoy this list as it captures a lot of the Steelers pass rushing legends as well as one crazy year from Ernie Holmes, and a couple of players who stepped up in the 1982 strike season.