The Pittsburgh Steelers accumulated only 37 sacks during the 2012 regular season.
Although Pittsburgh ranked 1st in the league in total defense, the inability of their defense to create consistent pocket collapse (15th overall in sacks) was a large reason why the unit was not as formidable on the field as they were on paper.
Despite the fact that James Harrison was released last March, it did not look like the Steelers would be in bad shape at the outside linebacker position in 2013. Jason Worilds was entering a contract season, LaMarr Woodley was supposed to be healthy and in shape again and rookie Jarvis Jones showed a knack for making big plays during the preseason.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, injuries (Woodley, Worilds and Jones all missed at least one start) and inconsistent play were more of the norm than anything else for the players at the premier pass-rushing positions on the defensive side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s defense finished tied for 25th in the league in sacks (34), and their outside linebackers struggled to consistently produce.
Although Worilds’ strong finish to the final eight games of his season (7.0 sacks and 42 tackles) was nice to witness, he was benched early in the season and was almost invisible during the team’s 2-6 start. Woodley cooled after his hot start (5.0 sacks in first six games) due to his injured calf, and Jones looked like he needed an extra ten pounds of bulk to him while he muddled (1.0 sack total) through a tumultuous rookie campaign.
As a whole, Pittsburgh’s five outside linebackers (Woodley, Worilds, Jones, Chris Carter and Stevenson Sylvester) accumulated only 14.0 sacks during the 2013 regular season! To put that in perspective, Harrison notched 16.0 in 15 games in 2008 when he won the NFL’s Defensive MVP award.
While the productivity was low last fall, the Steelers will likely be without Worilds or Woodley by the time the 2014 regular season begins. With Worilds headed towards free agency and Woodley eating much of the team’s cap space, the cap-strapped franchise will likely have to let Worilds walk or release Woodley to stay cap compliant and keep experienced depth at the position.
To be fair to the outside linebackers, they could have an even tougher time next fall collapsing opposing pockets if they receive limited amounts of help from their defensive linemen. While Cameron Heyward’s emergence as a monster at defensive end has been nice (5.0 sacks), the Steelers could be hurting for defensive line depth in 2014.
Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods will all hit the free agent market, and the Steelers’ brass might have a difficult time keeping all three of those players in town. With no strong or experienced players in the trenches to eat blockers and occupy space, Pittsburgh’s outside linebackers will be at the mercy of opposing offensive tackles.
Regardless of the projected depth along the defensive line, a combined 14.0 sacks from the outside linebackers over the course of a regular season will simply not cut the mustard for the type of defensive scheme which Pittsburgh employs.
The Steelers’ much maligned defense cannot continue to receive mediocre production from those positions. Thus, if the last two seasons have been any indication, the outside linebackers must get back to their pocket collapsing and turnover creating ways of old as soon as possible.
Like “NPC” on Facebook: Nice Pick, Cowher