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Welcome to 'Blitzburgh': Steelers break franchise sacks record with team approach

Chris Adamski
| Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, 2:30 p.m.
The Steelers' Tyson Alualu sacks Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Tyson Alualu sacks Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer during the fourth quarter Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, at Heinz Field.
The Steelers' L.J. Fort sacks Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer during the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' L.J. Fort sacks Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer during the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Steelers linebacker Vince Williams sacks Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Vince Williams sacks Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, at Heinz Field.

Vince Williams was 4 years old when the 1994 Steelers set the franchise season sacks record that he helped break this season. He was a toddler when the nickname was coined for that era of Steelers defenses that terrorized opposing quarterbacks.

Ever a student of the game and aware of its history, Williams was proud to bring it back after a game in which the Steelers picked up their record-breaking 56th sack of 2017.

“It's the new Blitzburgh,” Williams said.

“There's a lot of great guys who got sacks on quarterbacks in this stadium. We're just happy to add to it.”

These Blitzburghers have done it differently than their predecessors over the past quarter century since the zone blitz came to Pittsburgh with the arrival of Bill Cowher, Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau (the nickname soon followed).

Previous teams' pass rushes have come from their outside linebackers, but the Steelers of today don't rely so much on one position.

When safety Sean Davis and inside linebacker L.J. Fort dropped Cleveland's DeShone Kizer on Sunday, they became the 14th and 15th Steelers to record a sack this season.

Of the six teams in the post-Chuck Noll era that collected 50 or more sacks in a season, only one had more individuals with at least one. That was 1996, when the population of Blitzburgh was 19.

But just four of those 19 had as many as three sacks. These Steelers feature eight players with at least that many.

“We've just got a lot of guys who can get after the quarterback, a lot of guys who can apply pressure in a four-man rush,” said Williams, an inside linebacker. “That helps because you never really know what is coming.”

Twenty-three of the Steelers' sacks came from defensive linemen, led by Cameron Heyward's 12. The Steelers got 10 sacks from inside linebackers, six from defensive backs and 17 from outside linebackers.

That latter figure is notable in how low it is. The Steelers' other five 50-plus-sack seasons since 1992 got between 24½ and 30 sacks from the edge linebackers.

When the Steelers bottomed out at 33 sacks in 2014, a low since Blitzburgh was founded, they still got more sacks from outside linebackers (19) than they did this season.

“Those past teams on the outside, that's where the majority of the sacks came from,” said one of the current edge rushers, Bud Dupree.

“We spread it out all over the board. We play real team defense.”

Trust and communication help. When a defensive play is called, four players typically are assigned to rush the quarterback, but they can check out of it before the snap based on a look or formation the offense is showing.

Cornerback Joe Haden, for example, jokes that he almost never accepts the blitz called for him and instead passes it off to Mike Hilton (who has four sacks).

On Davis' interception Sunday, the original call had him blitzing, but Davis communicated with Artie Burns just before the snap. Burns went instead and got in on Kizer. He hit him as he threw and altered the pass.

The evolution of the Steelers' sack production coincides with the promotion of Keith Butler to defensive coordinator. He likes unleashing his linemen to be aggressive, and he's blessed with outside linebackers who can handle themselves in coverage (Watt, in particular). That's part of what has given Butler the freedom to send a wider variety of four-man rushes at opposing quarterbacks.

“You do not know what force is coming,” Butler said. “All of those guys are talented enough to rush the quarterback, and fortunately they do a good job for us.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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