On the Steelers: Despite the investment, outside linebackers producing fewer sacks
January 1, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers rookie of the year Bud Dupree was drafted to help bolster the team's pass rush at outside linebacker, which has had mixed results so far.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bud Dupree, named the Steelers’ rookie of the year, represents an unprecedented investment the franchise made in outside linebackers over the past two years.
He and Jarvis Jones were drafted in the first round two years apart. It’s the first time the Steelers selected one outside linebacker, never mind two, No. 1 since Robin Cole in 1977, unless you count defensive ends Aaron Jones (1988) and Huey Richardson (1991), who failed to convert to outside linebacker.
They also signed Arthur Moats this year to a three-year contract.
The results have been mixed. While the Steelers pass rush as evidenced in sacks has increased from a 25-year low of 33 in 2014 to 41 today with one game left, their outside linebackers have not been big contributors to that stat.
Those outside linebackers who play the top pass-rush positions in their 3-4 defense and its sub-packages have 14 sacks, led by 37-year-old James Harrison with five. That accounts for 34.1 percent of their sack total. Last year, outside linebackers had 19 of the 33 sacks, or 57.6 percent.
The 14 sacks by those outside linebackers are close to the team’s 21st century low, which occurred in the 6-10 season of 2003 when they managed just 12. Their high-water mark came in their last Super Bowl-winning season of 2008 when they produced 28.5.
The 14 is closer to their recent trend. In 2013 they had 14 after managing 15 in 2012.
Those recent low numbers likely fueled their desire to draft Jones and Dupree in 2013 and 2015, respectively, as well as re-sign Moats, who joined them in 2014 on a one-year contract as a free agent from Buffalo.
Yet so far, they have not benefited from their investments, at least not in the form of quarterback sacks.
“In terms of how many times these guys rush and how many times they don’t rush, I really don’t worry about that,” said defensive coordinator Keith Butler. “I’m more concerned with trying to put pressure on the quarterback and trying to make the quarterback make mistakes and I’m not real concerned about who we do it with.”
Defensive end Cam Heyward leads the Steelers with seven sacks. He tied outside linebacker Jason Worilds for the team lead with 7.5 last season, when Harrison had 5.5.
Heyward’s ability to again lead the team in sacks is evidence not only of his talent but also of the change in schemes Butler made to allow his defensive linemen to get to the quarterback more often. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt is third with 4.5 sacks.
“The defensive linemen are a little bit more active in some of our base defenses,” Butler said. “We’ve blitzed a little bit, too, and we’ve changed up our defenses quite a bit.”
Yet Jones and Dupree were drafted in the first round for their pass rush abilities primarily.
Jones’ 14.5 sacks in 2012 set a Georgia record and his average of 1.21 sacks per game was second in the country that year. He has five sacks in three seasons, his second ruined for the most part by a wrist injury.
Dupree has four sacks as a rookie after getting 23.5 in his Kentucky career.
“Everybody loves sacks,” Jones said. “I wish I had 15 sacks. Sometimes you just have to play within the scheme of the defense. I think we play a lot of coverage, our outside linebackers.”
Jones believe he has dropped into coverage this season more than ever and the statistics bear that out. Of his 451 defensive plays, he’s covered 17.29 percent of the time, which is more often than any of the top four outside linebackers, according to stats kept by Pro Football Focus. Harrison has dropped 15.55 percent, Arthur Moats 11.37 percent and Dupree 10.34.
Jones dropped 14.35 percent in 2014 and 15.19 percent as a rookie.
“We do a lot of stuff, man,” Jones said. “We have a lot of schemes, we have a lot of different packages.”
Does all this mean that the days of the Steelers outside linebackers as their predominant quarterback sack men are done?
“I hope we haven’t seen the end of those days, know what I mean?” Butler said. “I think we blitzed a lot in previous years. The versatility of the 34 defense and the way we’ve done it in the years I’ve been here, we’ve used those guys in pass coverage too, not just rushing all the time.”
And while Butler rightfully means what he says about not caring who gets the pressure on the quarterback as long as it gets there, those who keep drafting outside, pass-rushing linebackers in the first round would no doubt like to see more production from the investment in those individuals.
More Steelers awards
Dupree became the first true outside linebacker to win the Joe Greene Great Performance Award as Steelers rookie of the year in a vote of the local Pro Football Writers Association members. They also selected guard Ramon Foster as the annual Chief Award winner, which goes to the player who best exemplifies the spirit of cooperation the late Steelers founder Art Rooney had with the members of the media in assisting them to do their jobs.
Ben Roethlisberger returned for a full practice one day after missing one day because he was sick. Two others missed practice because of illness Thursday — Harrison and Martavis Bryant. Antwon Blake (back) and Doran Grant (groin) also were out. Mike Mitchell (shoulder) went through a full practice after missing Wednesday.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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