How Can the Pittsburgh Steelers Improve Their Pass Rush?

By Curt Popejoy

If there was one area the Pittsburgh Steelers fell short in during the 2012 NFL season it was that the defense we have all grown accustomed to was noticeably absent for a big chunk of the season. And the biggest area of concern over the past three seasons has been sacks. Could the Steelers make some changes in personnel or scheme to account for these problems?

Just to clarify what has happened on the defensive side of the football, in 2008 the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl and 51 sacks, then in 2010 and another trip to the Super Bowl 48 sacks. But the past two seasons the Steelers have really struggled to get after the quarterback with only 35 sacks in 2011 and 37 in 2012. A drop like this is difficult to understand for a defense that is coached by a living legend like defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, but the problems are very real. Sacks help drive turnovers and winning the turnover battle is the great equalizer for many teams. No pressure, no turnovers, and wins are harder to come by.

There are a couple of changes the Steelers can consider making for the 2013 season to try and improve a pass rush that has become quite anemic. The first is in terms of personnel. The key to a great pass rush in the 3-4 defense is in the outside linebackers. They aren’t the singular focus of the sacks but they are the trigger point for the pass rush, whether it’s from the outside backers or to aid the inside backers. In 2008, when the Steelers had 51 sacks, 39 of them came from the linebacker position. That’s 77%. In 2012, of the 37 sacks, 25 were from linebackers. That’s 67%. A considerable drop in sacks from the linebacker spot, and far too great a disparity in total sacks. I attribute this in large part to the lack of talent at the linebacker position in terms of pass rushers. LaMarr Woodley is just hitting the prime of his career so even with a down year I don’t write him off. But fellow outside linebacker James Harrison is past his prime, and really needs to be replaced in the starting lineup with a much more dynamic player. And as far as I am concerned that player is not on the roster at this time.

On the inside, linebacker Lawrence Timmons has really started to come into his own as a player but as great as his season was, he’s shown himself to be very good at everything but as an interior pass rusher. And as for the other inside linebacker Larry Foote had a great year, but largely as a run stopper as well. If the Steelers want to upgrade the roster to improve the pass rush, getting a stronger interior pass rush presence at linebacker paired up with that more dynamic outside rusher would go a long way toward sacking the quarterback and not depending so much on a defensive line that has come up very short on bringing pressure.

From a scheme standpoint the Steelers could consider a more attacking nickel defense. Last season the linebackers dropped into coverage often, forcing the front 4 to pressure the quarterback.  In the past Steelers fans have been able to relish in the exotic zone blitz schemes and great variety of blitz packages LeBeau would utilize.  But, over the past two seasons Lebeau has had to become much more vanilla for a variety of reasons including accounting for injuries or lack of talent at particular positions. In 2013 LeBeau and the Steelers staff may need to throw caution to the wind a bit more often and even if they don’t have the ideal personnel for it. This passive scheme just let teams move the ball far too efficiently to just sit back and let it happen again this season.

What say you Steelers fans? Would you rather see an upgrade of the roster, or a more aggressive defensive scheme? Maybe a little of both? Come find Curt on Twitter @nfldraftboard for all Curt’s football ramblings.


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