The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has done a much better job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks in 2015. The increased pressure has resulted in a significant increase in both sacks and turnovers. Through eight weeks, Keith Butler's unit ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks (22), and 13th in turnovers (11).
Pittsburgh's defense is on pace to record 44 sacks in 2015, after producing 34 sacks in 2013, and just 33 sacks in 2014.
One of the primary reasons the Steelers have been able to generate more pressure has been a schematic change made to the defensive front. Under former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh primarily ran a two gap system, in which the defensive lineman were responsible for both the A gap and the B gap on either side of the offensive lineman. This system required a lot more discipline on the part of the defensive lineman, who were asked to read the blocking scheme, and anticipate which gap the running back might choose.
Two gap defenders are usually bigger and slower, as their job is primarily to eat up space. Former Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton was perfectly suited for this system, as his tremendous size and low center of gravity allowed him to consistently take on double teams and eat up space along the interior of the line.
Under Butler, the Steelers have switched over to a one gap system, in which the defensive lineman are asked to attack a hole and take care of whatever happens in the gap they are assigned to. The idea is to create penetration and wreak havoc in the backfield. On a running play, the defender must force the back to move laterally, and on a passing play, he must penetrate and pressure the quarterback.
Defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt have the size and strength to play in a two gap system, but they are better suited to the one gap system, which utilizes their freakish athleticism. Nose tackle Steve McClendon is also a better fit in a one gap system, as he is more of a slasher and a penetrator than a space eater like Hampton.
Another major reason the Steelers have been able to create more sacks and pressure has been the immediate impact made by rookie outside linebacker Bud Dupree. Dupree, who the Steelers selected with the 23rd overall pick in this year's draft, leads the team with four sacks through eight games.
Pittsburgh's defense sacked quarterback Andy Dalton three times in Week 8. In this edition of Steelers Film Room, we'll take a closer look at each of those sacks, and break down how the front seven was able to generate pressure on Dalton.
Dupree notched his team-leading fourth sack of the season on a crucial third down play with 25 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
With the Bengals facing a 3rd-and-13 from the Steelers 28-yard line, Pittsburgh brings a five-man rush, with inside linebacker Ryan Shazier dropping to cover tight end Tyler Eifert at the snap.
Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and Heyward bring pressure up the middle, flushing Dalton out of the pocket to his right. Initially, it appears Dupree has run himself out of the play, but he uses his freakish athleticism to run down Dalton from behind.
This was the first game of the entire season that Butler did not blitz a defensive back, so the Steelers ability to generate pressure with four and five man rushes was critical.
The Steelers second sack of the game came with 9:58 remaining in the second quarter.
With the Bengals offense facing a 3rd-and-15 from its own 30-yard line, the Steelers bring another five-man rush. This time, however, outside linebacker Arthur Moats drops into coverage, while both Timmons and Shazier bring pressure up the middle.
At the snap, Timmons bursts through a gap between the left tackle and the guard, and runs through an attempted block by running back Giovani Bernard. This forces Dalton to step up on the pocket where he finds himself completely surrounded by Steelers defenders.
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones uses excellent technique, while creating outside leverage against left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Jones is able to beat Whitworth around the edge, and team with Shazier to bring down Dalton for a four-yard loss.
Jones, a first-round pick in 2013, and Shazier, a first-round pick in 2014, showed relentless pursuit in getting to the quarterback on this play. The Steelers front office spent its last three first-round picks on linebackers, and that investment is starting to pay off in 2015. Through eight games, Jones, Shazier and Dupree have combined for 7.5 sacks.
The Steelers defense limited the Bengals to 4/15 on third down conversions in the game.
With the Bengals offense facing a 3rd-and-6 from its own 46-yard line, the Steelers bring a four-man rush, with Shazier and Timmons dropping into coverage at the snap.
The stunt by outside linebacker James Harrison is picked up by center Russell Bodine, but solid coverage on the back end, and pressure from McClendon, forces Dalton to leave the pocket and make an errant throw.
The Steelers used a wide variety of defensive fronts throughout the game, and moved McClendon from his nose tackle position to defensive end. McClendon's versatility allowed Butler to make the switch, and insert Daniel McCullers at nose tackle, while keeping the much maligned Cam Thomas off the field. In addition to the pressure on the above play, McClendon also recorded his first sack of the season on Sunday.
Winning on first and second down allowed the Steelers defense to put the Bengals offense in several third-and-long situations. Forcing the Bengals into obvious passing downs, and creating pressure with four and five man rushes, helped the Steelers defense limit one of the league's most potent offenses to 16 points.
Had it not been for three second half interceptions by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh would likely have kept Cincinnati out of the end zone.
The Oakland Raiders offense will present its own set of challenges in Week 9, but whether its bringing heat with defensive backs, running stunts out of amoeba fronts with the front three, or bringing pressure up the middle and off the edge with the linebackers, the Steelers defense has shown it can create pressure against almost any team, in a variety of different ways.