The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered significant losses on defense during this offseason. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree signed a lucrative long-term deal with the Tennessee Titans in free agency, as did slot cornerback Mike Hilton, who joined a division rival, the Cincinnati Bengals. Never mind the somewhat contentious departure of cornerback Steven Nelson, who was released in a cost-savings measure after Nelson posted what he himself described as an “out of character” tweet. Or the loss of backup outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi, who followed Dupree to Tennessee.
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No. 1 in the NFL, Again
Despite all that, the Steelers are still expected to boast one of the strongest defenses in the NFL this season, thanks in large part to the strength of its defensive line and outside linebackers. For the second year in a row, Pro Football Focus (PFF) has the Steelers ranked as the No. 1 defensive line unit in the league, with the Washington Football Team, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles rounding out the 2021 Top Five.
“One would think that Pittsburgh’s defensive line is slated to take a step back after replacing Bud Dupree with [2020 third-round pick] Alex Highsmith,” notes Ben Linsey, who reminds us that PFF groups 3-4 outside linebackers in its defensive line rankings because they are edge rushers.
“But that step might not be as large as many expect,” he adds. “Highsmith finished his rookie season with a higher pass-rush win rate (16.5%) than Dupree (13.7%) last year,” which helps explain why another NFL analytics expert, Cynthia Frelund, recently named Highsmith one of the “most underappreciated” players in the AFC.
Highsmith is expected to start opposite perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt, with those two bookending a trio of defensive linemen—Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu—who are all considered by PFF to be among the Top 32 defensive linemen in the NFL.
“That group will look to match a league-leading 45.1% pressure rate in 2020,” concludes Linsey, making it extremely fortuitous that Alualu reversed his decision to leave the Steelers in free agency, more than 10 days after he agreed to return to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that made him a Top 10 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
The Steelers Will Attempt to Tie a Longstanding NFL Record in 2021
In 2020 the Steelers became the first team since the 1985-88 New York Giants to get 50 or more sacks in four consecutive seasons, with T.J. Watt leading the charge toward a league-leading 56 sacks by getting 15 on his own.
If the Steelers can record at least 50 sacks again in 2021, they will tie the NFL record for most consecutive years with 50+ sacks (five), which is held by three teams—Dallas, Chicago, and Washington—all three of whom set the mark between 1983 and 1987.
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