PITTSBURGH — One of the main reasons the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted outside linebacker T.J. Watt in the first round was to become less reliant on the blitz. Getting pressure on the quarterback with four players and dropping seven into coverage is the preferred way to play on defense for obvious reasons. It allows seven players to drop into coverage and the defense is less susceptible to giving up big plays.
The Steelers haven’t totally abandoned their Blitzburgh ways. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler still will dial up the occasional blitz, but the ability of the outside linebackers and defensive ends to create pressure with four-man rushes is a big part of the defensive resurgence.
The Steelers are first in the league in pass defense and second in total defense and sacks. They had four more sacks against the Bengals for a total of 24 entering tonight’s game in Detroit. They’re on pace for 55, which would tie a team record set in 1994 and tied in 2001.
The way the Steelers came about those four sacks against the Bengals is the blueprint they would like to follow. Watt and fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree each had one sack, and defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu had the other two.
“It means a lot,” Watt said. “It makes things a lot easier as a defense when you can just send your front four. A lot of the credit has to go to the back end. They’re covering and allowing us to get those sacks. We’ve talked all year long about how rush and coverage go hand-in-hand, and it kind of paid off this past Sunday.”
For the season, Watt and Heyward have four sacks apiece. Watt is threatening the team record for sacks by a rookie held by Kendrell Bell, who had nine in 2001.
Dupree and reserve outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo have three sacks apiece; nose tackle Javon Hargrave has two; and James Harrison and Alualu have one. That’s 18 of the team’s 24 sacks coming from defensive linemen or outside linebackers.
There have been times Butler has called blitzes that have resulted in sacks. Corners Mike Hilton and Joe Haden each have a sack, and inside linebacker Vince Williams has four. But even when inside linebackers and corners rush it’s not always blitzes. Sometimes, the Steelers will drop an outside linebacker into coverage in those instances and seven will remain in coverage.
Watt could be front and center in the pass rush again today in Detroit. The Lions have struggled protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford. They have allowed 23 sacks, and former Steelers offensive lineman Brian Mihalik could be the starting left tackle Sunday.
“We definitely had some great reps and have great film on our reps against him, so I think we’ll have a good sense of what we’re going to get come Sunday,” Watt said.