The Pittsburgh Steelers history of blitzing is rich. Whether it was the 'Blitzburgh' defenses of Dom Capers in the mid-90s or the Dick LeBeau 3-4 zone blitzing scheme which made the 3-4 defense a hot commodity across the NFL landscape again. When Keith Butler took over as the Steelers' defensive coordinator this year, one of the main questions asked was the amount of blitzing he would deploy in his defense on a week-to-week basis.
After a quarter of the 2015 season, Butler is sending heat, but not at a ridiculous percentage. Before digging into the statistics, think back to training camp when Butler spoke to media about his main focus and change for the defense moving forward in 2015 - activating the front seven. It was at this time Butler said the following in regards to the direction and changes he saw for the defense in 2015.
"We've got a lot of draft choices in that front seven, and we've got to use those draft choices in our front seven,'' Butler said. "Not only in the linebackers, but in (ends) Cam (Heyward) and (Stephon) Tuitt. Those guys are talented guys, so we have to use them, too."
"We can't let them always take up for the linebackers or try to take people off the linebackers. We've got to let them play football, too. So, hopefully, we can employ everybody in this defense. Especially the front seven.''
So far Butler's defense has done just that to the tune of 14 sacks, 4th in the NFL heading into Week 5, and the front seven he spoke of has represented 13 of those 14 sacks this season. The Steelers are pressuring the quarterback, but without having to send exotic blitzes which can leave an already vulnerable secondary out of position.
Looking at the statistics, Butler isn't blitzing nearly as much as the team did under LeBeau in 2014. LeBeau blitzed 37.21-percent of the plays last year while Butler has sent blitzes 35.44-percent this year. Not a huge discrepancy, but what is truly unique is how Butler has been dialing up pressure on a week-to-week basis. Some teams blitz regardless of opponent, but don't include the Steelers into that style of defense.
Take a look at the number of blitzes the Steelers deployed per drop back so far this season:
Week 1 vs. the New England Patriots: 11 blitzes on 34 drop-backs
Week 2 vs. the San Francisco 49ers: 19 blitzes on 55 drop-backs
Week 3 vs. the St. Louis Rams: 6 blitzes on 31 drop-backs
Week 4 vs. the Baltimore Ravens: 20 blitzes on 38 drop-backs
Looking not just at the individual games, but at the opposing quarterback and the passing attack of the opponent is truly what signals Butler to blitz more, or less. In Week 1 against Tom Brady, it is no surprise they didn't blitz often as Brady has proven he is capable of burning opponents who try and pressure him. In Week 2, the Steelers brought more pressure on the often erratic Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers, and were successful with 5 sacks in that game.
Against the Rams and Nick Foles, the Steelers played a more cautious game in terms of sending more than 5 rushers to pressure on passing downs, and were still able to sack the quarterback 5 times. The Rams simply didn't have the weapons both on the outside, as well along the offensive line, which required the Steelers to leave their base defense. Against the Ravens and Joe Flacco the Steelers pinned their ears back and sent pressure early and often. The 20 blitzes sent Flacco's way was the most on the season, and pointed to a Ravens team missing a starting tackle, and their top wide receiving target mid-way through the game.
In other words, the Steelers are getting pressure and sacks without blitzing as much as 2014. This is a phenomenal statistic for this 2015 unit if they can continue this trend for the remainder of 2015. Being able to pressure the quarterback without taking defenders out of coverage is the name of the game in the NFL, and the Steelers are showing that after the first quarter of the regular season is in the books.
In 2014, the Steelers ended the season with 33 sacks (an 8.25 sacks per quarter average), and already have 14 sacks in 2015 (on pace for 56 sacks), and this is being done without blitzing as much as 2014. The Steelers might not be Blitzburgh 2.0, but they certainly can put pressure on the quarterback as they have done throughout the first 4 games of this season.