Devil’s Advocate: Getting There With Four

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Can the Steelers expect to be better equipped to ‘get there with four’ on the pass rush?

It has been an interesting past half-decade for the Steelers and the development of their pass rush. The team has had to transition from having two standout edge rushers to something more of an amalgamation that, of late has had to rely far too much on the blitz in order to generate any semblance of a quality pass rush.

The defense posted low pressure numbers through the 2011 to 2014 seasons, but when Keith Butler took over in 2015, he brought with him a more aggressive attitude and that turned into something like 46 sacks on the year, among the highest totals in the league, which came from 17 or so different defenders.

Butler and the defense were hoping to get away from that this year and generate that kind of pressure with a more traditional four rushers, but the first half of the season didn’t bear out the desired results, so they turned back to the blitzes in the second half of the season, and the sacks returned.

They should be able to do better this year than last year. Cameron Heyward dealt with a litany of injuries going back to the preseason, for starters, and Javon Hargrave will be better in his second season. Bud Dupree will be healthy to start things out, and Jarvis Jones will not be in the starting lineup.

But better does not mean sufficient, and it isn’t clear to me that the four-man rush ever really approached sufficient levels last season. The Steelers lack that one dominant pass rusher, either outside or inside, that really helps that system go, for starters. They have a bunch of good players, sure, but they often need the help of a blitz to have consistent success. Which is why we may see that happen earlier this year.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • falconsaftey43

    Until they show otherwise, I don’t believe they have what it takes to get consistent pressure with a traditional 4 man rush. What I do think they have now, is the ability to get to the QB when the given a few seconds, I don’t think you’ll see the QB have all day back there anymore, but we won’t have a lot of quick pressures.

  • Aureliusness92

    Hopefully training with Chuck Smith will allow Dupree to take a step forward and turn into our main pass rusher. If that doesn’t happen, I imagine we’ll be seeing quite a few blitzes to generate pressure instead.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    We need 2 good rushers in and out.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    If he can improve, then it’s likely the QB panics and move left where he will get slammed, blindsided by Harrison. That would be nice.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Bring the heat! More blitzing please.

  • VaDave

    I totally agree 43! What we are short on is interior DL pressure, and no, we don’t have that person on the team. In the 70’s it was Joe Greene/Fat Holmes, we didn’t have one ( Dunn and Goodman were solid, but pressure?? ) in the 80’s and our record looked like it, In the 90’s Joel Steed, in the 2000’s Hampton. IMO, it’s a huge deficiency, and is something if we can resolve, will certainly cure a lot of other issues we have on defense.

  • WreckIess

    I think they’re better equipped. It’s no secret that Harrison’s sack production has been steadying to around 5 a season which is good for his role, but I think the fact that we have Watt to pick up the slack and potentially get that ROLB spot to around 10 sacks in a season makes that a great situation. We also have another year of progression for Bud and it last year was any indication, we can look to expect 7 to 10 sacks from him this season with some good pressures along the way. Lastly, like you mentioned, we’re getting Cam back which is the most important piece of the puzzle to me. He was getting 7 sacks a year in 2014 and 2015. Adding that and a 1st rounder to the mix definitely puts the pass rush in a better position.

  • CP72

    Heyward, Tuitt, Hargrave, then you bring either Harrison or Dupree. Hard to beat that combination.

  • CP72

    Heyward and Tuitt are both very good pass rushers. Hargrave certainly has shown the potential to be.

  • falconsaftey43

    I think they don’t have a dominant pass rusher there, but Heyward, Tuitt, Hargrave are all definitely good pass rushers. But those dominant guys are rare. And I think that’s the thing, even if Dupree is good, it might not be enough. I think you need at least one dominant guy, no matter which of the 4 spots he’s at.

  • Marcel Chris Chauvet

    If they can’t generate pressure with 4, they have very little chance of beating the Patriots. It’s as simple as that.

  • falconsaftey43

    I don’t know if I’d call Tuitt very good yet. He’s had some great flashes, but he’s too inconsistent still. The last two years he’s only registered about 15 QB hurry per year which is good, but not very good. Heyward is really good IMO and he’s up around 21 per season.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    To be honest, Tuitt and heyward are average pass rushers. The edge goes to heyward but they have the ability to look dominant in that regard at times.

  • I remember that. Once in his later years he got called for some BS penalty and then sacked the QB very next play.

    Hampton was perfect for a 2-gap scheme as were Smith and Keisel. A great 2-gap front 3 doesn’t help you without the playmakers off the edge though.

  • I only see reason for improvement really.

    Not related to the 4-man rush but the only downside I might see is that you might not rush Shazier as readily if you have less confidence in the player he’s paired with.

  • Big Joe

    If healthy, there is a good chance they can in base defense. I’m still not sold on a, yes, in subpackages without blitzing someone to overload the OL protection before the ball gets out. If they keep all 3 base DL in more often to put consistent pressure up the middle, then maybe. We’ll see.

  • falconsaftey43

    Yeah, I think Brandon Williams is the closest type of player to what Hampton was, and he only registered 7 pressures last year, even though he’s a fairly dominant player against the run.

  • KiJana Haney

    the combination of tuitt, heyward, dupree, and harrison/watt will become formidable overtime. I think that dupree will get 10+ sacks, and the combination of watt/harrison will account for another 10+ sacks. It is time for us to be able to get home with 4 more often.

  • LucasY59

    they did well when they were bringing blitzes, so I hope they dont try the just 4 thing like they did at the start of last season, getting pressure with 4 is good, but if it isnt working they need to blitz

    as far as ability to get there with 4, they should only get better, Dupree was doing well at the end of the season so hopefully he can continue, which would make it easier for Harrison (or Watt) across from him, and I think the interior rush will be better as well, since Gravewobble wont be a rookie and we could see a jump from him in that part of his game

    also if Williams is no good in coverage they should bring him on blitzes just as much as they have him drop, and obviously Shazier is an impact player so having him switch things up and rush at times will allow him to make more plays

    gadgety secondary blitzes can also work, but those are the ones I dont want to see very often (just enough for them to be effective/have an impact)

  • VaDave

    Must be a carry over from The Stop the Run at All Costs” from “LeBeau Book of Defensive Mantras”.

  • Craig M

    I think Hargrave steps up a notch this season but I do agree we are one dominant DL short in the middle. McCullers just isn’t mean/ aggressive enough.

  • Craig M

    11-14 our quality of DBs was deteriorating quickly and we were forced to drop back and give a step to the WRs in coverage. Last season Butler or whomever decided to continue this Def. style the 1st app. 5 games to little avail. When they started pressuring we improved and, I believe, this season w/ the added maturity of our young players we will see much improvement.

  • LucasY59

    Hampton is not a better pash rusher than Hargrave, and I really like Casey (but he was just a space eating two gapping run stuffer) Harrison in his prime was the reason they did well with the pass rush when he was playing

    same with Steed in the 90s had Lloyd and Greene rushing from the edge

  • Michael Mosgrove

    And we need at least two of them to take a big step up. As well as one of our inside lb to bring constant heat.

  • SfSteeler

    the question is about ‘half a second’…

    if we incorporate more and more agressive man coverage, that gives the 4 that ‘half second’ to get to the QB…Harrisons BULLRUSH and Duprees SPEED/growth opposite him with Gravedigger causing havoc in the middle looks good to me…

  • ATL96STEELER

    Imo, it’s not the interior pass rush that’s been the problem since Tuitt has stepped up his game. Hargrave is a young but penetrating type NT…the edge boys have not been up to snuff. They’re mostly getting blocked with 1 man, simply have to do better on the edge.

    For all the talk of Harrison…he’s still good and obviously the best on this team, but he’s not Deebo of ’09-’10. It’s time for Dupree to take his game to another level, but even with that, they need that 5th and 6th guy when they really need to make that QB get rid of it quick or take a sack.

  • Kevin Artis

    We just don’t have that dominant guy yet. And I’m not sure who it will be if any at all. Hargraves, Tuitt, Heyward are all good but not great IMO. We need that Bruce Smith, Mathias, Freeney, Reggie White type player.
    As far as OLBs go, we are waiting the emergent of Dupree and the development of Wyatt. Could you see us spending another 1st pick on OLB?

  • RickM

    We probably can’t get there with 4 with any degree of consistency. But I think the young talent we’ve added the last few years is getting us closer.

  • Dshoff

    I wouldn’t call either Tuitt or Heyward “very good” pass rushers. I hope that they have worked on their pass rush moves this offseason. Heyward depends on the bull rush too much.

  • Dshoff

    Bingo, our dl guys aren’t great pass rushers but they are good enough. Our OLBs have to be better. Hopefully Dupree steps it up this year and he’s worked hard this offseason on his pass rush moves. If I see him routinely (and easily) getting pushed past the qb again this year I’ll scream.

  • Rusted Out

    When did you become a Steeler fan? Casey Hampton was an absolute monster in the middle. Yea we all know he rarely registered a sack, but you should not discount the way he was able to collapse the pocket up the middle and draw double teams. If you need a refresher, go look up the Browns vs Steelers playoff matchup circa 2000. When Casey consistently drives the center into the backfield like he’s on ice. Nobody will ever convince me that a young Casey Hampton inserted on this current would not be a huge boost to the pass rush on this current squad, while playing 3 downs.

    However, I am with you on the dominant edge guy. This defense will never be top notch again until someone takes the mantle from Harrison. Fingers crossed on Watt being that guy.

  • Rusted Out

    We know one thing… getting there with 4 was wishful thinking last year and as I remember, it took them many weeks to abandon that train of thought

  • Rusted Out

    In Watt We Trust!

  • Rusted Out

    I firmly believe one of the younger CB’s will upgrade the Nickel slot as well.

  • RickM

    Yes, that was painful. Dupree out and Heyward struggling off an early ankle injury and Butler goes with a four-man rush. You don’t protect younger guys in the secondary by giving the QB all day to throw.

  • Rusted Out

    Story of the season right there… With the added depth to the secondary I fully expect somebody to take over for Gay, and the pass rush is going to benefit from having a healthy Dupree and Heyward. I also believe in Watt. I see a strong rookie season ahead of him, but it’s all going to be in vain if they don’t blitz 5 from time to time and play man coverage at the line of scrimmage. I know they “technically” called the crap they were playing press, but giving a 7 yard cushion is not press to me. As you said, they were not doing their young DB’s any favors by playing those types of defenses last season.

  • mokhkw

    Maybe my memory is failing me but I thought the issue early last season was not rushing 4 but only rushing 2 or 3 ie 2xDL and 1 LB ( or sometimes no LB at all)

    We can argue the difference between rush & blitz but when the Steelers rushed 4 – notably 3xDL and 1xLB then the results were ok. If they use a 3-3-5 Stack with Heyward-Tuitt-Hargreaves + a OLB they will get good pressure consistently imo.

    If they rush 2xDL and drop 9 like they did early last year – and the year before that – then they can expect the same results.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Chuck will get the most out of his talent I think…this is a very good case study of making a great athlete into a great pass rusher.

  • ATL96STEELER

    That would be ideal, but I think a combination of a 5 man rush and bump-n-run coverage mixed with some zone can be effective vs NE…as always a big key is interior pressure to keep Brady from stepping up in the pocket.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Big Snack’s effectiveness was twofold…you mentioned collapsing the pocket…I think he did that a little more than you’re giving him credit for in his heyday…(at the end they started taking Casey off the field on 3rd dwn) the 2nd…he almost always commanded a dbl so the DE on one side and OLBs had 1 on 1 battles most of the game and they all could beat their man enough. Combined with the zone blitzing from the ILBs or #43, the QB just didn’t know where the pressure was coming from…it was a relentless attack from the front 7.

  • Marcel Chris Chauvet

    They can run some 5 man rush I agree. As soon as they send 6, they’re toast. The interior pressure doesn’t concern as much as most. If the guys on the outside can force him I like Tuitt, Hayward, and Hargrave to be able to collapse the pocket and make him uncomfortable. I don’t think they are gonna become dominant interior pass rushers, but they are plenty capable of effecting him by being in his face. They need the guys on the outside to help though. Also, as you have correctly stated, they need the coverage to force that extra half second.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Exactly…there is no Von Miller on this team, it’s a combination effort to get it done vs NE or really any good pocket passer…interior, edge, and backend all working together….I think they are closer from a talent standpoint, we’ll have to see what they do with it.

  • Dean O’Brien

    As long as they keep the 3-man rushes to LESS THAN FIVE a game, dialing up different pressures from different directions is usually the best route. The key is to DISRUPT! Sacks are ok, but not everything. Whatever works, you do and hopefully avoid being too predictable. Having a new plan for the second half is also important, even if you were successful in the first, so teams can’t adjust or it doesn’t help because you’re not doing that anymore. Whatever works! If four doesn’t get there, send the czar’s army on the next play!