It’s been a preseason full of blows for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Sunday might have offered the hardest punch of them all.
Just one week before the season started, pressed to make final cuts to get the roster to 53, Pittsburgh made the call to place outside linebacker Bud DuPree on injured reserve with the groin injury that has sidelined him for most of the preseason. Out went last year’s first-round pick. Dead, perhaps, is the major second-year leap they were not only expecting out of him but more or less banking on.
It was one thing to lose receiver Martavis Bryant for the season due to a substance-abuse violation. He plays the receiver position that is the most loaded of any on the Steelers roster.
You could also see them rising well above the three-game suspension of running back Le’Veon Bell or the minimum of six weeks they’ll be without newly signed tight end Ladarius Green, who is still working back from offseason ankle surgery. The Steelers made a divisional round appearance last season by overcoming repeated blows to arguably the most talented offense in the NFL.
Losing a defender, and particularly this defender, could be crippling. It’s a territory the Steelers will be somewhat new to; for as unlucky as they were with health issues on offense last season, they were equally lucky in how they avoided them on defense.
Injuries happen everywhere in the NFL, with coaches and players forced to preach “next man up” with varying levels of success. It’s ultimately a game of surviving the setbacks at the crucial positions lacking quality depth, a game the Cowboys, for instance, usually lose when Tony Romo goes down.
This is where the Steelers could be in trouble. DuPree made just a minimal impact in his rookie season, posting four sacks in 414 pass snaps as the Steelers went 10-6 and reached the divisional round against the Broncos. There was a correlation there, though. Neither he nor 2013 first-round pick Jarvis Jones (two sacks) delivered last year in ways that felt at all game-changing, and Pittsburgh finished 30th in passing yards allowed and 15th in defensive pass efficiency. With how the Steelers are built to win, the absence of that threat has given them a ceiling they haven’t been able to break for years despite all the offensive riches.
The Steelers used to succeed with a relentless pass rush and the safety play to create turnovers and momentum. Blitzburgh, as it was known, could send Joey Porter or James Harrison off the edges along with a regular flow of A-gap blitzes, counting on Troy Polamalu or Ryan Clark to make a play in coverage on a rushed throw. The scheme has changed a bit in moving from the legendary Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler, who stresses more multiple looks up front and uses a higher percentage of zone coverages. But it still relies on the same effective blitzing and might need it even more now.
The Steelers don’t have a Polamalu or a Clark back deep. Porter is on the sidelines coaching and Harrison is somehow still playing at age 38 but not to the double-digit sack level he once was. Despite all they’ve pumped into the linebacking corps, such as first-round picks at all four starting spots, they haven’t had a double-digit sacker since 2010, when Harrison had 10.5. Not coincidentally, they have one playoff win during that drought.
The Steelers have a complicated defense that often tries to keep rookies off the field until they’ve properly made the physical and mental transition. The Steelers spent their first two draft picks this spring on cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis, but both are raw prospects who will be challenged by zone principles in their first year in the NFL. The massive improvement for this season likely wasn’t going to come in the secondary.
It was supposed to happen up front, where the Steelers, much like the Panthers and Bears, are selling out to rush the passer in ways that can cover up deficiencies on the back end. Pittsburgh has some ready pieces, such as a disrupting one-gap presence in defensive end Cam Heyward and arguably the league’s best blitzing inside linebacker duo in Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. Still, it needs the outside rush to complement in order to collapse the pocket and force hurried throws. It’s harder to see it coming from an aging Harrison or an undersized Jones, who could be playing out the final year of a disappointing rookie deal. DuPree, with all his size, length and explosiveness, was supposed to challenge to be the next double-digit sacker for the Steelers, a feat Porter predicted for him this offseason.
Now, it won’t happen, and it’ll remain to be seen what kind of impact he can offer this season. He’ll be eligible to start practicing again after six games and to return to game action after eight, if the Steelers choose that option. But losing crucial time developing in one of the more complicated defenses is going to hurt.
It’s conceivable the Steelers could pile up points even better than they did last year, when they finished fourth in the league with the injuries extending to Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line. The defense could turn in another average efficiency season, allowing them to win enough games to reach the playoffs for a third straight year. Perhaps by then, DuPree is back, healthy and making progress as a pass rusher at the perfect time for a playoff run.
But it’s just as possible this is the setback they won’t be capable of bouncing back from.