Steelers Had Top Pass Rush, Top 3 Secondary in 2020: PFF

TJ Watt

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images T.J. Watt #90 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a tackle for loss against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 21, 2020.

It’s no surprise that Pro Football Focus (PFF) anointed the Pittsburgh Steelers as the best pass rushing team in the NFL in 2020. Nor is it a surprise that PFF rated the Steelers as having the third-best secondary. But it underscores how disappointing it is that Mike Tomlin & Co. failed to win at least one game in the playoffs, which prompted Tomlin to quip that his team “died on the vine.”

Moreover, it’s going to be a huge challenge for Pittsburgh’s defense to maintain its recent level of success.

“The Steelers are coming off one of the best pass-rushing seasons we’ve seen since 2006, generating pressure on a whopping 45.1% of their pass-rushing snaps over the regular season,” notes Ben Linsey of PFF, who compliments the team’s “well-rounded” effort, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt, as well as fellow Pro-Bowler Cameron Heyward and the underrated Stephon Tuitt, who had 11 sacks in 2020.

But with the 31-year-old Heyward getting older and the Steelers likely to lose OLB Bud Dupree (nine sacks) in free agency, it’s only going to get more difficult to maintain Pittsburgh’s habit of accumulating 50 or more sacks per season, which the team has managed for a franchise-record four seasons in a row. Never mind the fact that backup defensive tackle Tyson Alualu is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Next year the Steelers will attempt to tie the NFL record for most consecutive seasons with 50 or more sacks (five), which is held by three different teams (Dallas, Washington, Buffalo), all of whom accomplished the feat between 1983-87.

In 2021 Pittsburgh will also attempt to extend its NFL record of recording at least one sack per game. (That mark currently stands at 73 regular season games.)

Steelers Secondary No. 3 in the NFL in 2020

Almost as important to Pittsburgh’s defensive success in 2020 was the play of its secondary, which allowed the lowest pass completion rate in the NFL (56.7 percent), the lowest passer rating (76.7), and the third-fewest passing yards.

“Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were quality starters on the outside, as they ranked 24th and 39th, respectively, among 93 qualifying outside corners in coverage grade,” notes PFF’s Anthony Treash. “However, the backbone of the unit’s success came elsewhere. Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton played nearly equal snaps in the slot and came away ranking third and seventh, respectively, among 40 qualifiers in coverage grade at the position. Minkah Fitzpatrick also provided standout play on the back-end with the third-best coverage grade among deep safeties.”

Unfortunately for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, both Sutton and Hilton are pending unrestricted free agents and both Haden and Nelson carry exorbitant cap numbers, at $15.575 million and $14.42 million, respectively. Nelson is only 27 years old, so a contract extension might be the solution to reducing his cap number for 2021. But Joe Haden is already 31 and the Steelers might not feel comfortable extending his contract. Hence he is a prime candidate to become a salary cap casualty.

Hall of Fame Voting to Take Place on January 19

Meanwhile, it won’t be long before former Steelers offensive guard Alan Faneca learns whether he will be part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021.

According to, the selection committee will conduct its annual meeting on Tuesday, at which point the committee will also vote on the candidacy of the late Steelers scout Bill Nunn—aka ‘The Dynasty Builder’—who is a Contributor finalist.

The Class of 2021 will be announced on February 6th during the NFL Honors show and will be enshrined in August along with the Class of 2020, whose ceremonies were postponed by a year because of the pandemic.

The Class of 2020 includes former Steelers safeties Troy Polamalu and Donnie Shell and former head coach Bill Cowher.

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