Expectations of outside linebackers have changed in Keith Butler's defensive schemes | Steel City Underground

Steel City Underground

Pittsburgh Steelers LB Bud Dupree

Most specifically, they want to see the double-digit sack seasons of the players of yesteryear. If someone like Dupree doesn't have 10-plus sacks, they're simply "no good", "a bust", or "useless".

However, the reason Dupree isn't any of those things is the role he, and even his teammate on the opposite side of the D, T.J. Watt, plays in Pittsburgh's current defensive schemes. Judging him only on sacking the quarterback isn't a fair metric.

I'm going to prove it with other statistics below, but let's first give Dupree a pass for those persons who want to compare him as a first-round failure a la Jarvis Jones. First of all, Dupree had as many sacks in 2017 as Jones had in his entire Steelers tenure. That aside, Dupree didn't start an entire season until last season. As a rookie, the Kentucky product started in five games while the Steelers deployed a rotation at the outside linebacker position which included Jones, James Harrison, and Arthur Moats. At times, Anthony Chickillo would also pop into circulation over Dupree's career, which stalled to start in 2016 as he was placed on injured reserve.

Once Bud returned, he and Harrison played nearly 100% of the snaps over the final 4-5 games of that year: Dupree would rack up 4.5 sacks over that time period, besting his 4.0 from his rookie season.

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Jones never had more than 2.0 sacks in 50 games (35 starts). When compared with Dupree's 8.5 sacks in 23 games (9 starts), well, there's no comparison. I realize that's not quite Porter or Harrison territory, but few achieve those sort of numbers anyway. Greg Lloyd only had one 10-sack season. He never reached double-digits again, and only had more than 7 in a season one other time (1991). Joey Porter hit double-digits twice (10.5 in both 2000 and 2005) while Harrison and Woodley did it three times.

We may never see a defense like the Steel Curtain of the 70's, Blitzburgh of the 90's, or whatever you want to call the Super Bowl runs in 2005, 2008, and 2010 ever again. That's because of several reasons. First, those teams were loaded with talent. The most recent dominant defense featured forgotten Pro Bowl players like Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, as well as the memorable future Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu.

Not only do the current Steelers lack that sort of pedigree, but that 3-4 defense has adapted to an evolving pass-happy NFL, where big nose tackles are a liability in lieu of covering a third or fourth receiver and a pass-catching tight end.

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That's where Dupree, and Watt, both differ from their predecessors in that they're called upon more in pass coverage as opposed to blitzes. A contingent feels Dupree hasn't gotten to the quarterback enough, but the same criticism isn't bestowed upon Watt (who only had one more sack than Dupree in 2017). Watt had eight more tackles, but that's only where the comparisons begin for the Steelers outside linebackers. Using statistics I compiled from Pro Football Reference (PFR) and Pro Football Focus (PFF), I started to dig into why it appears these two edge rushers aren't as "successful" as a Porter or Harrison of the past, or their peers presently within the league.

The simple answer is this: they don't have as much opportunity.

As mentioned above, Dupree and Watt are asked to drop into coverage more often, thus limiting their ability to strictly go after the passer. To illustrate this, I gathered stats on the top 25 outside linebackers, who played at least 400 snaps last season and ordered them by sack rank.

Rnk Tot Cov Name Tm Snaps Cov Snp % Sck
1 7 23 Ryan Kerrigan WAS 820 49 5.98% 13.0
2 1 9 Justin Houston KC 1,015 145 14.29% 9.5
3 9 5 Matthew Judon BLT 787 164 20.84% 8.0
4 4 10 Bruce Irvin OAK 880 121 13.75% 8.0
5 6 20 Derrick Morgan TEN 827 68 8.22% 7.5
6 14 21 Clay Matthews GB 656 43 6.55% 7.5
7 8 4 T.J. Watt PIT 809 183 22.62% 7.0
8 2 12 Brian Orakpo TEN 938 117 12.47% 7.0
9 3 25 Trey Flowers NE 921 51 5.54% 6.5
10 5 8 Bud Dupree PIT 850 137 16.12% 6.0
11 18 14 Leonard Floyd CHI 582 68 11.68% 5.5
12 10 13 Connor Barwin LAR 722 87 12.05% 5.0
13 19 22 Vic Beasley ATL 556 34 6.12% 5.0
14 20 3 Devon Kennard NYG 543 129 23.76% 4.0
15 15 11 Erik Walden TEN 644 81 12.58% 4.0
16 13 15 Shaquil Barrett DEN 664 76 11.45% 4.0
17 11 1 Lorenzo Alexander BUF 719 204 28.37% 3.0
18 23 6 John Simon IND 472 82 17.37% 3.0
19 16 7 Sam Acho CHI 639 103 16.12% 3.0
20 12 17 Jordan Jenkins NYJ 715 70 9.79% 3.0
21 25 24 Kyler Fackrell GB 446 25 5.61% 3.0
22 21 2 Barkevious Mingo IND 503 132 26.24% 2.0
23 22 16 Josh Martin NYJ 489 48 9.82% 1.5
24 17 18 Frank Zombo KC 639 54 8.45% 1.5
25 24 19 Kareem Martin ARZ 458 38 8.30% 1.0

As you can see, Watt and Dupree were in the top ten of their position to drop back into pass coverage last season. Sorting through the differences is tricky but placing coverage snaps next to total snaps, we can see how often the pair of Steelers aren't blitzing. According to PFF, Dupree dropped into coverage the fifth-most amount of snaps. 137 of Dupree's 850 snaps, are further skewed when you consider he played the 19th most total snaps among those edge players. Of the edge defenders listed, who dropped into coverage more than Dupree, only two had more sacks than him: teammate T.J. Watt (7.0) and Baltimore's Matthew Judon (8.0).

Those who would prefer a Joey Porter or James Harrison approach (i.e. leading the league in sacks) are unfairly comparing Dupree and Watt to defensives ends like Chandler Jones (17 sacks) or Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks). Jones dropped into coverage on 4.89% of his plays while Campbell did so 0.51% of the time. (Yes, less than one-half percent!)

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Ideally, the two best comparisons to the Steelers duo are the Chiefs' Justin Houston and Raiders' Bruce Irvin. Each had more sacks and dropped into coverage a bit more than their other counterparts, however, both also played more total snaps overall. (Houston played the most of all on this list with 1,015 snaps - 165 more than Dupree and a near equivalent to three additional games worth of playing time!)

If I told Steelers Nation that they had Justin Houston and Bruce Irvin on their roster they'd likely pee themselves with excitement: that's why the 6 sacks Dupree had or the 7 Watt made are a tremendous success when examined against their peers.

Their productions also go hand-in-hand with the Steeler ability to lead the league as a team. Since each drops back more often, it frees up other defenders, such as Cam Heyward (12.0 sacks), Vince Williams (8.0 sacks), or Mike Hilton (4.0 sacks) to become playmakers. This can lead to deceptive schemes as the opponent isn't just standing there waiting for the outside backers to rush the passer.

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One advantage to the Steelers traditional 3-4 defense was that the other team couldn't identify the extra rusher. Considering Pittsburgh plays in their base defense one-third of a game (if they're lucky) having versatile linebackers who can drop into coverage or get to the passer is an asset.

Therefore, don't look down upon these players if they don't reach ten, eleven, or twelve sacks in 2018. Times have changed and Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has positioned his squad to adapt to today's NFL. That progression has brought us to an era where an ungodly amount of sacks by a single linebacker may become a trend of the past.

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  1. When I evaluate a player, I first use the eye test, then look for statistical support. When I look at Dupree, I see a guy who didn’t make plays in either run support, or pass coverage. When rushing the QB, I saw a guy with only one way to get past his man – run around past him into the deep backfield. No bull rush. No spin move. And most of the time, the QB simply saw it happen, and stepped up into the pocket. That’s why they’re moving him to the blind side. His only skill should be more effective from there. Statistically, PFF ranked Dupree the #98 edge rusher, which isn’t even close to being good enough to start, figuring there are 64 “starting” edge rushers. The rookie Watt looks much more capable to me, and ranked #46 by PFF. I like Bud’s athleticism, but the original knock on him that he doesn’t have much football sense still lingers. Maybe a light bulb will come on for him this season. I really hope so.

    • Joe Kuzma says:

      What the Steelers are toying with is mismatches. My gut tells me the move to right has more to do with Tuitt than it does Dupree. Heyward led the team in sacks with Dupree next to him. I also can’t picture a time when Dupree was suspect in pass coverage either.

      The eyeball test there is what matters to me. If you give Bud 100 more snaps to rush the passer, I have a hard time believing he doesn’t get another sack or two minimum last season. It’s really that stat alone in which Steelers Nation is giving him a hard time.

      • I thought Tuitt was going to have a big year anyway, but you bring up a good point. Perhaps Bud’s wide and deep swinging rush path opened room for Heyward last season, so maybe it will do the same for Tuitt this season.

        • Joe Kuzma says:

          Yes, and also, Watt can hold his own too, which makes him and Heyward on what is usually the “strong side” even more intriguing. Could blow the top off of the defense, which still led the league in sacks and set a franchise record too!

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