Tim Benz: Does the Steelers’ pass-rush production match its reputation? | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz

Is Bud Dupree better than we make him out to be? Is the Steelers’ pass-rush as good as its sack numbers indicate? Is the Steelers’ offensive line pass-protection as good as we say it is?

Based on some numbers compiled by ESPN’s Next Gen player-tracking stats those answers are:

• Probably

• Almost

• No

If you’re like me and you hear a statistical deep-dive interview, you tend to embrace the numbers being discussed if they support your preconceived notion. You dismiss them if they don’t.

So, my guess is there was a real mixed-bag reaction from Steeler Nation the interview I did with Brian Burke. He’s one of the analytics writers and analysts at ESPN.com. And he’s very familiar with the NFL player-tracking data through Next Gen Stats.

One of the studies he did recently was to measure the consistency of NFL pass-protection vs. pass-rush. Generally speaking, the data reveals that week-to-week and team-to-team, offensive-line pass-blocking is far more consistent, and pass-rushing is much more of a variable.

“Pass-rush is much about who you are playing against,” Burke told me this week. “Pass-blocking, there is more of an initiative there.

“Pass-blocking is more determinative of game outcome than pass-rush skill.”

In other words, on a scale of 1-10, if your team’s offensive line is a perfectly average 5, its pass-blocking is going to be average just about every week. Meanwhile, your pass-rush is just as likely to be an 8 or a 9 as it is to be a 1 or a 2 based on how good the opposing offensive line is.

That’s not necessarily a stunning finding. That seems about right. But it does kind of solve a classic chicken-or-egg argument from a football perspective, doesn’t it? “Is their pass-rush good? Or is our pass-blocking bad?”

Well, based on that research, it is probably your leaky O-line, coach.

How did that research correlate to the Steelers? The results were interesting.

The Steelers tied with Kansas City for the league lead in sacks last year with 52. The Steelers led the league with 56 in 2017, too. And those who like to prop up the Steelers’ defense love to point to that number.

Those who are critics, like yours truly, like to point out that the sack totals for the Steelers had a tendency to be boom or bust.

In 2018, 22 of those sacks came over four games against the Browns (season opener), Bengals (season finale), Panthers and Falcons.

All of those clubs were non-playoff teams. The Browns were a mess to start the year, and the Bengals were eliminated by Week 17. The Panthers and Falcons were dealing with injuries along the offensive line the weeks they played at Heinz Field.

But, as Burke points out, pass-rush efficiency isn’t just about sacks. It’s about pressuring the quarterback. That’s something the Next Gen Stats base off a 2.5-second clock. That’s the average time for a quarterback to release a pass based on the player tracking findings.

Not counting screen plays, if the pass-rusher beats a block within 2.5 seconds, he wins the down. If the pass-protector holds his block for 2.5 seconds or more, he wins the down.

Using that metric, Burke says, the Steelers ranked sixth in the NFL. Not the best pass-rush in the league. But still very good.

Burke claims the Next Gen Stats put the average win rate for individual pass-rushers at 20%. In terms of how those numbers wash out for Steelers pass-rushers individually, it’s probably better than you’d expect for Dupree. He’s a frequent whipping boy for frustrated Steelers fans who don’t think he gets to the quarterback enough, netting just 4.5 sacks last year.

“He shows up at above average at 25%,” Burke said. “(Stephon) Tuitt and (T.J). Watt stand out. They are up around 30% each. The highest are over 40%. (Cameron) Heyward is closer to average, 21%.”

Based on anecdotal reaction from most Steelers fans, you’re probably saying: “Sounds right on Tuitt and Watt. But Cam is too low, and Bud is too high.”

That’s where preconceived bias can come into play when absorbing numbers like these.

However, Burke also talked about “sacks created.” That’s where a defensive lineman gets credit for a sack if he finishes it himself, or forces the initial pressure that results in a teammate getting a sack.

This is where Heyward stands out with 9, falling behind only Watt (14) on the team. Javon Hargrave pops up in third (7) followed by Tuitt (6.5) and Dupree (4.5).

Maybe that’s evidence that the whole left-right outside linebacker switch of 2018 was more beneficial for Watt than Dupree after all.

Interestingly, the highly touted Steelers offensive line graded out more toward the middle of the pack than what you might expect in terms of pass-blocking.

We’ll get into that Friday.

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