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Steelers Film Room: Defensive front dominance continues heading into Week 3

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass rush is beginning to resemble groups from the 1970s and 1990s, even without monstrous defensive end Stephon Tuitt. If they’re this good now, Tuitt could easily push them to greatness.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the Pittsburgh Steelers have sunk a lot of draft picks, time and money into their pass rush over the last five years or so. They’ve used first-round picks on Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, as well as a second-rounder on defensive end Stephon Tuitt. After some setbacks, it looks like they’ve finally hit on a solid combination capable of putting pressure on the opposing quarterback without having to blitz with five or six players.

That ability was on full display Sunday afternoon against the Minnesota Vikings. While they only managed to get the quarterback on the ground for a sack twice, they spent the entire game harassing quarterback Case Keenum and making the Minnesota offensive line look bad.

2nd Quarter, 3:51 Remaining, 3rd & 7, MIN 45

There are three key elements to Bud Dupree’s first sack of 2017. First, Keenum’s 7-step drop from the shotgun put him well behind right tackle Mike Remmers, leaving Dupree with no need to slow down to make a tight turn around the arc. Secondly, Dupree’s quick first step put him well past Remmers anyway. And finally, cornerback Joe Haden’s outside-to-inside blitz drew the running back, who initially was set to help Remmers with Dupree, up into the pocket.

At the last possible moment when Keenum could have thrown the ball, all receivers were very well covered. This is how the front-seven and the secondary help each other out: the secondary covers well enough to give the pass rush time to get to the quarterback, and the pass rush moves quickly enough that it doesn’t give receivers time to break off their routes and improvise, a situation impossible to cover for any length of time. If both do their jobs for a window of about two to five seconds, the result of any play should either be a sack or an incomplete pass. That was clear to see on this play.

3rd Quarter, 4:59 Remaining, 1st & 10, MIN 17

On this play, nose tackle Javon Hargrave — who played surprisingly few snaps — was a one-man wrecking crew. In fact, that was true on most downs when he was on the field. But this one really stands out because of just how polished he looks in only his second season.

The first thing to notice is how quickly he fires off the line, especially considering the snap bordered on illegal. It’s hard to know for sure if the offensive line was set for a full second before the snap, but the entire defensive line was still getting settled into their stances. Regardless, Hargrave popped up and took three very powerful steps toward the retreating center, arms bent and hands centered in front of him.

As he engages Minnesota center John Sullivan, Hargrave comes in low, and straight at the offensive lineman’s chest. Sullivan has no other choice but to get his hands outside Hargrave’s frame and, because of this, he’s already lost the battle.

Hargrave extends his arms into Sullivan’s chest, and Sullivan is lifted almost completely off his feet. He’s able to reset briefly, but Hargrave already has beaten him by that point, forcing Keenum into a rushed throw that’s nearly intercepted by cornerback Artie Burns. Sullivan didn’t have a chance from the moment Hargrave engaged because he lost the hand-placement and leverage battles decisively.

3rd Quarter, 2:53 Remaining, 2nd & 20, MIN 21

Only a heroic, one-man effort by Keenum kept this play from being a sack — several times.

Outside linebacker Arthur Moats hasn’t gotten many snaps through two games, but he definitely made the most of this one. Right off the snap, he has Remmers beaten badly, and is able to get all the way around and get a hand on Keenum. Unfortunately for Moats, Keenum stepped up at the last second, but he didn’t have much room to work with, because inside linebacker Vince Williams’ running-start bull-rush was enough to nearly flatten right guard Joe Berger with a single hit. Williams is normally a sure tackler, and had a fistful of Keenum’s jersey, but Keenum fights back long enough to allow Berger to regroup and break up the tackle attempt.

It wasn’t going to be a long-lived escape, however, as defensive lineman Tyson Alualu was running free and making a bee-line straight for Keenum. Right before being brought down by Alualu and Moats, Keenum is able to heave the ball out of bounds, preventing a loss on the play.

4th Quarter, 8:55 Remaining, 1st & 10, MIN 22

The reason this play happens at all is because defensive end Cameron Heyward, who had been a terror all game long, was once again spending almost as much time in the Minnesota backfield as Keenum.

Before the snap, left guard Nick Easton never looks at anyone but Heyward and never sees Williams coming on a blitz. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo takes a wide arc, also drawing left tackle Riley Reiff away from Williams. The only blocker who had any shot at slowing Williams down was running back Dalvin Cook, whose block attempt looked more like an effort to hide himself in the grass. In his effort to retreat even faster, Keenum lost his balance and fell, giving Williams an easy sack. It’s too bad that Heyward can’t get partial, statistical credit for this one, because this play was typical of his tenacity and success all afternoon long.

The Steelers’ front-seven still has room for growth because they had a lot of near-misses on Sunday. But even pressuring a quarterback into a bad throw is a win. Once this group is back at full strength, with the return of defensive end Stephon Tuitt, there’s little reason to believe this team won’t be pushing for a historic number of sacks in 2017.