Tim Benz: Steelers think consistent pass rush could come from less consistent formations

September 16, 2018
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Steelers linebacker Olasunkamni Adeniyi celebrates after sacking Titans quarterback Luke Falk Saturday Aug. 25, 2018 at Heinz Field.

It’s a drum I will continue to pound. The Pittsburgh Steelers seem to be banging away as well.

Despite a record-setting 56 sacks in 2017, the Steelers’ pass rush could’ve been better. It was artificially inflated by three bust-out games against two lousy pass protecting teams in Cleveland and Houston. Twenty of those 56 sacks came in those contests.

Against other teams, it was spotty. We saw just one sack from the “Renegade” defense against Joe Flacco in the home game against Baltimore despite his 35 passes. Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles wasn’t sacked in the playoff game and only was hit four times. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford was hit three times (sacked twice) in 46 dropbacks. Tom Brady was brought down one time in 23 second-half pass attempts in the loss to New England.

So the Steelers have spent a lot of time figuring out ways to improve the consistency of their pass rush.

Now that we got to see a majority of the first-team defense Saturday in the home preseason opener against Tennessee, we can see how they are trying to make that happen.

We all know by now about the outside linebacker flip-flop between Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt. Dupree is moving to the right side. Watt is going over to the left. For purposes of getting Dupree on the quarterback’s blind side, and Watt into a capacity where his contain and dropping talents can come into play more often, that makes a lot of sense.

With Watt’s injured hamstring keeping him sidelined, however, that allowed coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler to do some experimentation Saturday.

Despite mostly being on the right side, Dupree was put back on the left side a few times, with Anthony Chickillo hopping over to the right. That happened in the second quarter with the Titans backed up near their own goal line. Dupree got some penetration, and the play resulted in an incompletion.

At one point, Dupree also stood up, stacked behind Chickillo on the right side, which seemed to create some problems for Tennessee.

“I’m just trying to get matchups,” said Dupree. “I’m just trying to get on the guard sometimes, get on the tackle sometimes.

“It just depends on whoever we target. I just want to get a one-on-one with whoever it is.”

Chickillo described that look as a “3-2-6.” It features three down-linemen with six defensive backs. Chickillo (or a healthy Watt) is then on the right side as a linebacker with Dupree playing what Chickillo called a “rover” position.

“Just cause confusion,” Chickillo said. “We send a lot of different people.”

In the third quarter, returning to his now accustomed right outside linebacker spot, Dupree helped collapse the pocket on a sack by Cameron Heyward.

“We are trying different things right now,” Heyward said. “I’m not sure what will stick.

“It just makes us very versatile in our approach.”

Vince Williams, fresh off of his new $20 million contract, registered a sack, too. He surprised the Steelers with eight of those last season.

On a few occasions in the first half when Chickillo left the field, the defensive coaches deployed Williams further outside in formations than his typical inside linebacker role. Dupree and intriguing undrafted rookie Matthew Thomas were also at linebacker at those times.

Thomas led the team in tackles Saturday with seven. According to Chickillo, Thomas took over rover duties on those occasions, allowing Williams to flash the straight-line blitz abilities he showed off last season.

“Vince is a guy that can get to the quarterback, and Matt Thomas is a special athlete,” Chickillo said. “So having both of those guys on the field could help us.”

According to Tomlin, a lot of that movement was explicitly designed to confront Tennessee. He said the team wanted to get back in the habit of game-planning for specific opponents. It worked, as the defense totaled six sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. In Tomlin’s words, “You’ll see things like that from time to time.”

What we saw last year from the Steelers was a pass rush working effectively “time to time.” Having it be consistent is the next step.

However, being “consistently inconsistent” with how they attack in 2018 might be the key to making that happen.

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