Can The Steelers’ Pass Rush Record 50+ Sacks In 2023?

As the Pittsburgh Steelers navigated through the twilight of Ben Roethlisberger’s career, there was one constant force that helped keep them competitive. Their pass rush. Pittsburgh led the league in sacks five years in a row from 2017-2021. That would be impressive enough on its own, but they also managed to record a sack in an NFL-record 75 straight games.

However, the pass rush unit came back down to earth last season. After the team recorded over 50 sacks from every season in that five-year ‘17-’21 span, they had just 40 last season. This still ranked a solid 14th in the league last season, but solid is a far cry from the former dominance the Steelers were able to have in that area. And that poses the question: can the team get back to that dominance?

It seems like a fairly safe bet that the pass rush will improve last season, barring another injury for star linebacker T.J. Watt. Watt played in just 10 games in 2022, his first NFL season where he didn’t hit the 15 games played mark.

But if you take a look at Watt’s numbers, it seems like he had a down year even taking the injury into account. After tying the NFL sack record in 2021 with 22.5 sacks, he had just 5.5 sacks over his ten games last season. If you dig a little deeper, however, you’ll that the sack number isn’t the whole story.

T.J. Watt was out with an injury from Week 2 to Week 8 last season. Over that seven-game span, the Steelers recorded just eight sacks. If you take that sack per game number and extrapolate it over a full 17-game season, it totals to roughly 19 sacks for the season. This would have ranked last in the NFL. Now let’s look at the games Watt did play. The team picked up 32 sacks over the 10 games Watt started, which if you again extrapolate the sacks per game to a full season gives you just over 54 sacks. This would have ranked third in the league last season.

It cannot be overstated how important Watt is to this pass rush. With him, they are still an elite pass rush, and without him (although it is a limited sample size) they were really bad. Even when he is not the one recording the sacks, he opens things up so much for others. Take the Steelers’ two players who had double-digit sacks last season in Alex Highsmith and Cam Heyward for example. Highsmith had 3.5 sacks in the seven games Watt was out, and 11 sacks in the 10 games Watt played. Heyward had a similar split, as he had just two sacks in the seven games Watt was out, and 8.5 sacks in the 10 games Watt played. Both Highsmith and Heyward are very talented on their own but are allowed to be so much more effective when the opposing team is worried about, and potentially doubling, Watt.

We haven’t even talked about the new additions for 2023 yet, as rookie Nate Herbig had double-digit sacks at Wisconsin last year, and second-round pick Keeanu Benton should provide some more size and depth on the defensive interior.

While it’s always hard to predict things that are partially reliant on health, I am firmly on the side of the Steelers’ pass rush still being elite. I think that the team can easily return to form and record 50 sacks this season. But as I’ve pointed out, it all revolves around the star, T.J. Watt.

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