Nov 10, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) and defensive end Brett Keisel (99) react after Heyward registered a sack against the Buffalo Bills during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 23-10. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Steelers’ Sack Strategy Continues To Evolve


The pressure to improve the Pittsburgh Steelers 25th rank in sacks has been primarily placed on two second-year starters: Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.

Worilds led the team with eight sacks last season while the rookie Jones nabbed just one. It was a big departure from the 27.5 sacks OLB tandem James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley recorded in 2008.  The linebackers as a whole recorded only half of the Steelers’ sacks in 2013 (17 of 34).

Dick LeBeau’s philosophy of focusing just the linebackers on bringing down the quarterback has been undergoing an overhaul. With the addition of pass-attack defensive lineman like Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, and even backup Al Woods, the Steelers have deployed a new plan of attack.

In 2013 the defensive line of Brett Keisel, Heyward, Woods, and McLendon had 44 percent of the team’s sacks (15 of 34). This is the highest percentage of sacks by a Steelers’ defensive line in many years.

Year

Percentage of Sacks by Steelers D-Lineman Percentage of Sacks by Steelers Linebackers

2013

44%

50%

2012

30%

68%

2011

19%

75%

2010 18%

68%

2009 20%

71%

This off-season the Steelers did very little to alter this new trend. They elected to not add any new linebackers who specialize in getting to the quarterback. They did however add both speed and strength to their refined defensive line.

Defensive lineman Heyward finally became a starter in his third NFL season and made up for lost time. He was arguably the Steelers’ best overall defensive playmaker last year with five sacks and 50 tackles. His now former linemate Brett Keisel had four sacks and Al Woods had two in their limited appearances.

Now that Woods is in Tennessee and Keisel remains unsigned, the Steelers replenished the line with players who can fit their new scheme. Instead of finding another brick house like Casey Hampton, LeBeau has chosen to stick with more versatile tackles like McLendon and newly added former Charger Cam Thomas. Both can play the nose or defensive tackle position and can get to the quarterback. Thomas has had six sacks in his four-year NFL career while McClendon has had three sacks as a Steeler.

The fact that Da Beard (Keisel) is no longer playing for the Steelers not only hurts fans but also hurts the team’s chances to improve their sack totals. Keisel has averaged three sacks per year since becoming a starter. His projected replacements are Thomas, rookie Stephon Tuitt and former practice-squadder Brian Arnfelt.

Tuitt is the most intriguing. Had it not been for a sports hernia during his final season at Notre Dame and a foot fracture discovered at the combine, Tuitt would have been a first round pick.

At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, Tuitt can play both inside and outside on the line. He has good agility and quickness and is hard to move. He can also bring the heat on the quarterback as noted in the 20.5 sacks through his 28 games as a starter.

The Steelers added a mountain in Daniel McCullers from University of Tennessee. This sixth-round draft selection stands 6-7 and weighs in at 350 pounds. If Assistant head coach/defensive line coach John Mitchell can get McCullers to play at a NFL level, the Steelers will find time for him in the rotation.

The Steelers have to find a way to get to the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. It doesn’t matter which defensive group paves the way as long as the results are lots of quarterback s(n)acks.

Tags: Cameron Heyward Featured Jarvis Jones Pittsburgh Steelers Popular Steve McLendon

  • Craig

    Here’s hoping they add Keisel and Harrison as insurance at the start of pre-season games- low salary, cash bonus w/ incentives. Their experience and professionalism will pay for themselves.