Team gets to QBs while stopping run
Steelers should record at least 50 sacks for fourth season in a row
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.
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.
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.