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Comparing the Steelers pass rush under Keith Butler to all of NFL history

Where does the Steelers 5-year run leading the league in sacks rank them in NFL history?

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In my first article on this subject, I compared Steelers defenses throughout franchise history to rank them for how successful they were at sacking the quarterback.

In this article I want to compare the Steelers to other teams in NFL History to see where they rank. The methodology is pretty simple, if you don’t care about it, or read about it in the previous article, feel free to skip it this time:

In order to compare teams across different eras of the NFL, we are going to compare that team’s sack production to the rest of the league that season. So we compare the team’s sacks to the NFL average sacks for a team in that season. The equation:

team sacks/(total NFL sacks that season/# of teams in NFL that season) = team percentage of average NFL sacks for that season.

Example: the 1980 Steelers recorded 18 sacks. There were 1031 total sacks in the NFL in the 1980 season. There were 28 teams in the NFL in 1980. So:

18 / (1031 / 28) = 18 / 36.8 = 48.9%

The 1980 Steelers recorded only 48.9% as many sacks as the average 1980 NFL team. Roughly half of what you would expect them to record.

The top teams by single season sacks in NFL history

I didn’t compute the numbers for every team in NFL history, but I did run the numbers for every league leader, and then ones below them if there was a chance they could make the top ten.

Here are the top single season defenses by sacks.

The 1974 Steelers just miss the top ten, so I listed the top 11. You can see how the fluctuation of total sacks affects the rankings. It is interesting to me that 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977 are all represented on this list. Those seasons saw small groups of teams collecting a lot of sacks while other teams collected very few. It was a time of change across the NFL in a lot of ways and that opened the door for teams to rank very highly compared to their peers. The strange thing is these teams would have great sack numbers in one season, and then it dropped back down. I can’t explain it. The 1970’s were a weird time.

One of the interesting things that showed up in making this was the 1987 Bears. The mid-1980s was a crazy time for sacks. Here’s the 1983-1987 total NFL sacks, along with the number of teams that recorded at least 55 sacks.

1983: 1215 Five 55+ sack teams.
1984: 1313 Ten 55+ sack teams.
1985: 1306 Seven 55+ sack teams.
1986: 1198 Five 55+ sack teams.
1987: 1106 Three 55+ sack teams.

In the years following the 1982 strike season, the NFL saw some of the highest sack totals in league history, and also saw the disparity in sack totals between teams widen. By 1987 it had dropped back down and only 3 teams reached 55 sacks, while the Bears were the only team with 60+ sacks, recording 70. Second place was 57. The Bears recorded 72 sacks in 1984, but second place was 66 sacks, and a staggering ten teams that season had 55 sacks.

At that point the Steelers franchise record was still 52 sacks, and it would stay at 52 sacks until the 1994 season. Meaning 10 teams in 1984 recorded more sacks than any Steeler team had ever recorded, and even today, the Steelers record 56 sacks would have ranked 7th in the 1984 season. The NFL was a crazy place after the strike.

As you can see the top 11 teams all recorded over 160% of the average sacks for that season. The best season for the recent Steelers is 157.9%, they rank substantially lower. From from just the work I did making that list I can rule them out of the top 15. But the Steelers didn’t set any single-season records, what is impressive is their five-year streak leading the NFL in sacks. So the question I want to answer next is, where do they rank historically against other teams best five-year stretches.

The Best Five year runs of team sacks in NFL history.

The methodology for finding the best 5 year stretch for teams was pretty easy, I looked for any team with seasons close to each other that were at or above 150% and ran numbers for the surrounding seasons to find their best five-year stretch. I just added the percentage of average NFL team sacks together, added them together in five-year stretches and found the highest number.

The Steelers of 2017-2021 do not take the top spot in this metric either, but they move up quite a bit.

Here’s the top three 5-year stretches for sacks in NFL history:

  1. 1983-1987 Chicago Bears. 319 sacks. Average of 146.1% of NFL average team sacks.
  2. 1968-1972 Los Angeles Rams. 233 sacks. Average of 143.8% of NFL average team sacks.
  3. 2017-2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. 273 sacks. Average of 142.9% of NFL average team sacks.

Neither the Rams, nor the Steelers have a team in their top 5-year stretches in the top ten seasons, and neither would rank in the top 15. But both have consistently high percentages of NFL average team sacks. In fact, the Rams had a stretch of 10 straight seasons with at least 120% of NFL average team sacks from 1967-1976. They had a good number of different players reach 10+ sacks in those ten seasons. Deacon Jones led the team for most of the run, with Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer coming in to finish it, all with Merlin Olsen in the interior of the defensive line.

I think the Steelers have a chance to match or even beat that streak. Deacon Jones was 29 years old when the Rams streak started and was only there for half of it. T.J. Watt was 27 in 2021, and the Steelers are five years into their own streak and if the Steelers were to pull off a ten-year streak, he would be 32 at the end of it. In fact, if the Steelers keep up their production the next few seasons they will be in-line to be the top sack getting team over any 7 year stretch of NFL history.

Keith Butler is no longer the defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he won’t be designing the Steelers pass rush schemes. It’s probable that we will see the Steelers make sacks less of a priority in 2022, and even if they don’t, no other defensive coordinator has done what Keith Butler has over the last five seasons. Both the Bears and Rams changed defensive coordinators during their runs, and it is worth questioning if the Steelers can continue the success like the Rams and Bears did, or if they, like most teams in NFL history, will not be the same team with a different coach.

No matter how the Steelers defense performs going forward, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward and the rest of the Steelers defense have pulled off one of the greatest stretches of pass rush success the NFL has ever seen.