Defense eyeing record
PITTSBURGH — Improved coverage in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary has allowed the defense an opportunity to make team history.
The Steelers have 50 sacks, which is five from the franchise record entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against Cleveland.
“If you can get them to hold the ball a little bit and make them second-guess themselves by changing up the coverages and blitzes, then that really helps us,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said.
The Steelers have four defenders with at least five sacks each this season. The list includes Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.
That production has helped the Steelers rank second in sacks, fourth in yards allowed and fifth in points even without much from linebacker James Harrison, who is in New England after getting cut last week.
Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was active for just five of Pittsburgh’s 14 games and played only 40 snaps despite being injury-free. The 39-year-old Harrison is the franchise’s leader in sacks, piling up 80¢ during his 14 seasons with the Steelers and 82¢ in his career.
The Steelers have continued Harrison’s legacy and have a chance to break the franchise mark for sacks in a season on Sunday.
“We’re ready to just go out and do it,” Dupree said. “We want to be able to say we’re the group that broke the franchise record. We want to take a picture after the game and say that we’re the best to ever do it. It’s a lot of fun when you can do something like that.”
Heyward leads the way, as his team-best 12 sacks are tied for fifth in the NFL and tied for second-most by a Steeler defensive lineman in a single season since 1982.
“That’s unusual for a defensive tackle to have 12 sacks,” Butler said. “How he’s passed up for the Pro Bowl, I don’t know.”
Watt, the younger brother of three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt, ranks second among rookies with six sacks this season. He became the first player in league history to record at least two sacks and an interception during his NFL debut against the Browns in Week 1.
Cornerback Mike Hilton got into the action last week against Houston with a single-game career-high three sacks. Dupree is also enjoying a career season with a personal-best six sacks.
“The defense we run, we drop back a lot, but having the chance to rush the passer is fun,” Dupree said.
The secondary has helped the Steelers reach this point.
Pittsburgh is ranked No. 5 against the pass, two seasons removed from finishing 30th in passing defense. Cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis — the Steelers’ first and second-round picks in 2016 — join veteran Mike Mitchell. The Steelers solidified their back end when they signed former Browns standout cornerback Joe Haden.