Team gets to QBs while stop­ping run

Steelers should record at least 50 sacks for fourth sea­son in a row

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Pro Football - Gerry Du­lac: gdu­lac@post- gazette. com and Twit­ter @ger­ry­du­lac.

The Steelers are well on their way to set­ting a fran­chise record with the high vol­ume of sacks they com­pile each sea­son. And, if they con­tinue to do what they have done bet­ter than ev­ery NFL team since 2017, they are on track for an NFL record, as well.

But, with the Steelers, it’s not just about sack­ing the quar­ter­back. They have been able to stop the run on their way to ter­ror­iz­ing quar­ter­backs, some­thing not of­ten seen around the league since the 1980s.

The Steelers have a league- best 20 sacks af­ter four games, putting them on pace to eas­ily reg­is­ter 50 or more for a fourth con­sec­u­tive sea­son, a fran­chise record. No team has done that since the New York Giants in 1985- 88. The league record is five, set by three teams — Chicago, Dal­las and Wash­ing­ton — in the same five sea­sons ( 1983- 87).

But what is even more sig­nif­i­cant is the Steelers have a chance to lead the league in sacks for the fourth con­sec­u­tive sea­son, some­thing no team has done in NFL his­tory, ac­cord­ing to Elias Sports Bureau. The Steelers are tied with the AFL’s Oak­land Raiders ( 1966- 68) with three.

They are a throw­back to the old days, the 1980s, the golden age of sack­ing the quar­ter­back.

That was the decade of the 1985 Chicago Bears, whose de­fense was men­tioned in the same breath with the 1976 Steelers as the great­est in league his­tory. It was the era of Lawrence Taylor, a time when quar­ter­backs were like a soup bone in a room­ful of Dober­mans. The 1984 sea­son, in par­tic­u­lar, was es­pe­cially ter­ror­iz­ing for quar­ter­backs. That was when 10 teams had at least 52 sacks, most in league his­tory, ac­cord­ing to Elias Sports Bureau.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the top four teams to record the most sacks in a sea­son all came from that decade –— the 1984 Bears ( 72), the ’ 89 Min­nesota Vik­ings ( 71), the ’ 87 Bears ( 70) and the ’ 85 New York Giants ( 68). So did the ’ 85 Bears ( 64), who ranked sixth.

It wasn’t easy be­ing an of­fen­sive line­man in the 1980s. For­mer Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin, whose 14- year ca­reer be­gan in 1980, said de­fen­sive line­men had more time to get sacks then be­cause quar­ter­backs took deeper drops. Of­fen­sive line­men were

asked to hold their blocks longer.

“They would take seven and nine- step drops,” Ilkin said. “Now they take three and throw those quick passes.”

Steelers de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Keith But­ler, who was a linebacker with the Seat­tle Sea­hawks from 1978- 87, said quar­ter­backs are get­ting rid of the ball quicker now than when he played be­cause of modern of­fen­sive schemes.

“The quar­ter­backs are get­ting the ball out of their hands much faster,” But­ler said. “There are a lot of run- pass op­tions, which are quick passes. They’re will­ing to take a 5- yard pass as op­posed to try­ing to throw it down field a lit­tle more. There’s a lit­tle more play- ac­tion in the game. They’re do­ing a good job of it.”

But the de­fenses of the 1980s didn’t just get af­ter the quar­ter­back. They didn’t

just send all- out as­saults on the pocket and leave ev­ery­thing else to chance. Sta­tis­tics show they stopped the run, as well.

In each of the three years the Bears led the league in sacks, they also were ranked No. 1 against the run. Same with the Raiders in 1967. The Giants were ranked sec­ond against the run in 1985 when they led

the league in sacks. De­spite the pres­sure they ex­erted on quar­ter­backs, they didn’t al­low them­selves to get caught up­field and be gouged by the run.

Three decades later, the Steelers have a chance to do the same. In ad­di­tion to lead­ing the league in sacks per game, they are ranked sec­ond in the league against the run, al­low­ing 84 yards per game. They would still be No. 1 if it weren’t for a 74- yard touch­down Sun­day by the Ea­gles’ Miles San­ders, a play, coin­ci­den­tally, in which they left them­selves sus­cep­ti­ble by get­ting caught in a five- man blitz to the quar­ter­back.

The most re­cent NFL team to lead the league in sacks and rush de­fense in the same sea­son?

The 2010 Steelers, who had 48 sacks and al­lowed an av­er­age of 62.8 yards rush­ing per game.

“Some­times when you look at these pass- rush­ing teams, they tend to get up­field and ex­pose them­selves in the run game that cre­ates ver­ti­cal holes,” de­fen­sive end Cam Hey­ward said. “I think we do a god job when we’re in base [ de­fense], we can play down the line, we can get up­field and we can get off block­ers, as well.

“We’re not just look­ing to create pen­e­tra­tion and make your­self sus­cep­ti­ble in the run game. I think we have a great group of guys that know how to get off blocks and how to stay in your gaps.”

The Browns should pay at­ten­tion to this. Their quar­ter­backs have been sacked 53 times in the past 10 games against the Steelers.

Val­i­da­tion needed

The game Sun­day against the Browns is im­por­tant for the Steelers be­cause it gives them a chance to see if their un­beaten record is le­git or merely a byprod­uct of play­ing teams with a com­bined 3- 15- 1 record.

But the game is so much more mean­ing­ful for the Browns on sev­eral fronts.

A vic­tory against the Steelers would be sig­nif­i­cant, if for no other rea­son than the Browns have lost 16 in a row and 19 of the past 20 games at Heinz Field. But it also would be val­i­da­tion that their 4- 1 start is no fluke and they are in­deed a se­ri­ous con­tender in the AFC North Di­vi­sion.

On top of that, a vic­tory against a team they con­sider to be the bench­mark for suc­cess would be a mon­u­men­tal oc­ca­sion for a fran­chise that has strug­gled with cred­i­bil­ity and re­spectabil­ity since com­ing back in the league in 1999.

Peter Diana/ Post- Gazette

T. J. Watt closes in on one of the Steelers’ five sacks of Ea­gles quar­ter­back Carson Wentz in Sun­day’s 38- 29 win at Heinz Field.

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