The Steelers were arguably the best team in the NFL at getting to the quarterback in 2018. They finished the season tied for the most sacks in the NFL and were 3rd in sack percentage. Their aggressiveness with the blitz was certainly a contributing factor. However, getting to the quarterback without sacrificing defenders in coverage is still arguably the most important trait a pass-rushing unit can have. The Steelers were very successful at generating pressure using just four defenders (both with the blitz and without). In fact, this is how they created the majority of their sacks in 2018.
Combining talent with scheme and execution is the best way to consistently create pressure with 4 pass rushers. Obvious statements are obvious. In Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, and T.J. Watt, the Steelers have one of the more talented pass-rushing units in the NFL. But Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler also does a great job of scheming advantageous 4-man pressures.
On the below sack against the Jaguars, Butler brought inside linebacker Vince Williams down over the left guard pre-snap.
This created a reduced front, leaving the center and both guards in 1-on-1 matchups. Both tackles were occupied with 1-on-1’s on the outside as well.
Williams dropped out at the snap, though, resulting in a 4-man rush.
However, with the 1-on-1’s already ensured across the board due to the initial 5-man front, the Steelers D-line was able to go to work against advantageous match ups. Focus on Javon Hargrave against the right guard.
That was an athletic mismatch. Hargrave won with quickness and a great swim move. He was barely touched and closed immediately for the sack. Quick inside pressure will beat just about any offense.
Below is a different look against the Panthers. Here, the 5 offensive linemen were responsible for the 4 “down linemen” and the “Mike” linebacker, as illustrated.
Running back Christian McCaffrey was responsible for inside linebacker Vince Williams if he came.
And that’s exactly what happened. This was a blitz, but it was still a 4-man pressure. The Steelers again dropped 7 into coverage.
Focus on Anthony Chickillo and Tyson Alualu below. They did a great job of taking their blockers with them to create an alley for the blitzing Williams. Chickillo rushed upfield and to the outside to take the left tackle with him. Alualu initially rushed at the left guard’s inside shoulder to occupy him, then brought him towards the center and away from Williams’ lane.
This isolated Williams on the smaller McCaffrey, who struggles in pass protection.
That’s a great job of team defense and execution there. It’s also an example of a simple concept used to break down a protection and create favorable mismatches with a 4-man rush.
Good defensive-line stunts are needed for any team hoping to effectively rush the passer with just four defenders. Not all stunts are created equal, though. Execution is key. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen defenses attempt stunts, only for the stunt to be easily identifiable, the timing to be off, or even for defenders to run into each other like the Keystone Cops, effectively negating the pass rush altogether.
The Steelers were great at executing their responsibilities on stunts in 2018. Below is a perfect example against the Ravens.
Focus on Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward. This was going to be a T-E Stunt with Heyward going first and Dupree looping around him.
The thing to watch here is how Heyward and Dupree did a great job of not tipping their hand. Right after the snap, it looked like they were both legitimately attempting to beat their blockers to the outside.
It wasn’t until late in his pass rush that Heyward altered his path into the left tackle, effectively throwing a block on him. Dupree waited until that point to loop around Heyward.
You can see that the guard was turned to the outside, committed to blocking Heyward. He was late to recognize the stunt because Heyward did such a good job with his initial path.
That’s a well-timed and perfectly-executed stunt.
The Steelers’ struggles against the pass last year were more based on issues in their secondary. We’re all interested to see if they can improve on the back end in 2019. If the Steelers can continue to generate pressure without sacrificing coverage, though, they should be able to mask some of their deficiencies in secondary.