Steelers look at Bud Dupree as next elite outside linebacker
Six NFL seasons have come and gone since the last time the Steelers suited up a player — they actually had two that year — who reached double digits in sacks.
Bud Dupree was 17 years old and a high school senior in Irwinton, Ga., in 2010 when James Harrison (10 1⁄2 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (10) led a pass rush that helped the Steelers to a berth in the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers.
With the Steelers seeking more quarterback pressure this season, Dupree is being counted on heavily to snap that drought and get the Steelers back to the NFL's championship game.
If those expectations sound familiar, it's because Dupree heard them last summer, much like another former first-round draft pick, Jarvis Jones, did in previous years — to no avail.
“I'm all with it,” Dupree said last month during organized team activities. “I like the pressure, but there really isn't any pressure for me. It's expectations. People expect me to be the guy, and they see a lot of good things in me.”
The Steelers saw enough from Dupree in four years at Kentucky that they drafted him 22nd overall in 2015. He was taken to address a pass-rushing need Jones couldn't fill after being drafted in the first round two years earlier.
Dupree played in all 16 games as a rookie, starting five down the stretch, and had four sacks. It was a good enough debut that thoughts of a 10-sack sophomore season became a bona fide wish for Dupree.
That was until Dupree said he injured his groin on the first day of OTAs in 2016. He sat out of much of summer workouts, and the groin injury kept him shelved all preseason. The Steelers placed Dupree on injured reserve a week before the season opener, a designation that meant he would miss at least half the season.
So much for Dupree taking that giant leap the Steelers were expecting at outside linebacker.
Dupree needed surgery to repair the core-muscle tear and didn't make his debut until Nov. 20 at Cleveland. After the Steelers gave Dupree a few games to build his endurance, coach Mike Tomlin unleashed him Week 14 in Buffalo.
Making his first start of the season, Dupree had 2 1⁄2 sacks — the first multiple- sack game of his career — while playing all but one snap. Dupree then played every defensive snap in division wins over Cincinnati, Baltimore and Cleveland that extended the Steelers' late-season winning streak to seven games.
Dupree ended the season with 4 1⁄2 sacks, finishing second to Harrison's five. He also recorded a half-sack in the playoffs while playing all but three defensive snaps.
The finish to Dupree's season is what has the Steelers excited about the possibilities of what he can produce given a full year of starts.
“I definitely feel like he can be a huge difference-maker for us,” insider linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “He's a big, huge guy. You're not going to be able to run the ball on him. He's going to keep his leverage so he can make plays. He brings a lot of things to the table that we didn't have before.”
Like Dupree, Jones was dogged by injuries early in his Steelers career. But even when healthy, his numbers couldn't match Dupree's. Consider that in 50 career games with the Steelers, Jones totaled six sacks. Dupree already has 8 1⁄2 in 23 career regular-season games.
“The main thing is just getting him through the season healthy,” outside linebacker coach Joey Porter said.
Shazier was impressed when Dupree arrived at OTAs and minicamp this summer looking like a stronger, faster player.
“It's just good to see him healthy,” Shazier said. “Last year, he wasn't really that way. Jumping on the train during the season is kind of hard. I know it was tough on him because I've had to do it a few times, going back and forth, back and forth.
“Seeing him healthy and getting him back out there, I definitely think he can help out our team.”
So far, so good. Dupree made it through summer workouts without incident and expects no setbacks when training camp begins July 27.
“Everything just feels better,” Dupree said. “I'm more confident, and I know the playbook more. I know what to expect, how the plays are going to go. It's a great feeling.”
The Steelers drafted another pass rusher, T.J. Watt, in the first round this year, but that was more to address Harrison's age (he recently turned 39) than a lack of faith in Dupree.
Barring a setback in training camp, Dupree is scheduled to start the season at left outside linebacker, with James Harrison or Watt manning the right side.
“We're always looking to get better,” Porter said. “We're always searching to get those two guys, those premier pass rushers. If we're getting that production from those guys, they are going to play. It's that simple. We're trying to win championships. However we get it done, we'll take it.”
Dupree is glad to be part of the solution.
“I'm always going to challenge myself,” he said. “Go out and play the best I can, do the best I can. I think this is not only going to be a great year for me but for the whole defense.”