Steelers’ defense ‘still writing its story’ with historic mark up next – Pittsburgh Steelers Blog

PITTSBURGH — Among his many sayings, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has one that he repeats often when talking about things still in progress: the play of young receivers, his quarterback’s return from injury, a rookie’s development.

“This group is still writing its story,” he’ll say.

The story of the Steelers’ sack streak started 68 games ago, with James Harrison’s 12-yard drop of then-Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on Nov. 6, 2016. Entering Monday’s game (5 p.m., FOX) against the Washington Football Team, that ongoing story has a chance to match a historic mark, especially against a team that has allowed 35 sacks this season.

From 1999 to 2003, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recorded at least one sack in 69 consecutive games. With a sack in every game — and 233 sacks total — since Harrison’s against the Ravens, the Steelers enter Monday one away from matching Tampa Bay’s streak.

“We’ve never really talked in-depth about any of that stuff,” said Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, who has a team-high 45.5 sacks during the streak. “We’re just trying to be the best team we could possibly be. All that matters is getting the win.”

The Steelers have long been a dominant defensive team with a formidable front. Since 2014, two years before the sack streak began, the Steelers have recorded 322 sacks, the most among NFL teams. With former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau calling the shots, the Steelers got their pressure with a blitz-heavy defense. Although they have the second-highest blitz rate in the league, at 41.6%, defensive coordinator Keith Butler insists that they’re generating sacks and pressure while blitzing less than they did under LeBeau.

“We do rush four, but occasionally we will still blitz,” Butler said. “We are not the Blitzburgh that we used to be, but we certainly are not far from it …

The Steelers have 322 sacks since 2014, the most in the NFL during that span. Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

“We do sprinkle in some blitzes with five-man, and at the start of the year, we used some six-man stuff around the goal line. We will do whatever we have to do to make sure we maintain the pressure on the quarterback, make sure the ball comes out on time if we can, or if it doesn’t come out on time, we have to hit him. We have to make sure that he knows we are there.”

Tomlin was on the Buccaneers’ staff for the final three years of their streak, and though the schemes are different, he sees similarities between his group and the one that set the bar.

“The thing I think about when I think about the two groups are the quality individual rushers who rush well together collectively,” Tomlin said. “We had really good individual rushers in Tampa. Guys like Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, but it was more than that. They rushed collectively well together, much like the group we have here.

“We have guys that you can characterize as really good individual rushers, but they rush very well together. The understanding of the larger body and how they fit into it makes it happen for them. That’s what really provides the consistency that you guys mention and chronicle.”


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Watt, who was in college at Wisconsin when the Steelers’ streak began, headlines the group of individual rushers, but the Steelers’ premium depth has been key in keeping it going. Guys such as Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree have also made major contributions. Heyward and Tuitt have 32 and 23 sacks, respectively, since the streak began, and Dupree, now out for the season because of a torn ACL sustained in Wednesday’s game, has 35.5 in that time.

“They provide a wave that we ride,” Tomlin said of his top-notch pass-rushers. “They are good individually, they are good collectively, and they are consistent in terms of their performances.

“I’ve been a part of several groups like that. I was fortunate enough to be a part of that Tampa group that this group often gets compared to, and that is something that they both have in common. They have great individual rushers who show up week in and week out. I’m fortunate to have that perspective.”

The Steelers are also bolstered by defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, whom Butler credits for further developing the pass rush. Now in his third year with the Steelers, Dunbar has coached stout defensive lines such as those of the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, along with the 2016 and 2017 groups at Alabama. During Dunbar’s six years with the Vikings from 2006 to ’11, Minnesota’s defense allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL (84.8 yards per game) and recorded the sixth-most sacks (242.0).

“Karl Dunbar does a great job with our front four in terms of rushing the passer,” Butler said. “If you check out his résumé, then you’ll find wherever he has been, the pass rush has been pretty good. We are glad to have him.”

The Steelers will have to continue the streak without one of their primary contributors of the past three seasons. Dupree’s season-ending ACL tear opens a hole on the right side of the defense and a big opportunity for rookie Alex Highsmith, who has one sack of his own.

“In order to continue getting pressure on the quarterback, we need for Alex Highsmith to step up, and we need for Ola [Adeniyi] to step up and Jayrone [Elliott] — all three of them,” Butler said. “We need for them to stay up so we don’t have a drop-off even when T.J. [Watt] comes out. …

“The biggest thing for us is to get in the playoffs, and then the next biggest thing is to win the Super Bowl, especially for my third son. I’ve got three sons, and I have two Super Bowl rings. That’s all I’ve got, so we have to get one more of them for sure. I think Alex is capable of doing what we ask him to do.”

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