PITTSBURGH (AP) — It’s not the kind of shutout the Pittsburgh Steelers defense had in mind to start the season.
Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins dropped back to pass 43 times in Pittsburgh’s 38-16 victory in the opener last Monday. And 43 times Cousins was able to get the ball off without finding himself laying on the ground underneath someone clad helmet to cleats in black-and-gold.
Sure, the Steelers won easily. Yet they’re well aware they need sacks if they want to slow down Cincinnati on Sunday.
“We have to get pressure,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “You can cover up a lot when you’re able to hit the quarterback. We’ve got to put (Bengals quarterback) Andy (Dalton) on his butt. That’s as simple as it’s got to be.”
Even that might not be enough. Cincinnati edged the New York Jets 23-22 in Week 1 despite Dalton getting dropped a career-high seven times. When given time, Dalton carved up New York’s secondary by finding do-everything wide receiver A.J. Green. Pittsburgh collected three sacks in each of its three meetings with the Bengals a year ago, doing it thanks to a variety of exotic blitz schemes designed by defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
Yet the Steelers were decidedly more vanilla against Washington, often just rushing the front four and dropping seven and sometimes eight men into coverage to protect against the deep ball and give its secondary littered with inexperienced players all the help it could get.
“When you blitz, sometimes there’s a little bit of a risk factor that they could make a big play on you, stuff like that,” Butler said. “A lot of times, we rushed three. Did we want more pressure than we got out of a four-man rush? Yes.”
The Redskins also relied heavily on a passing game that requires Cousins to get rid of the ball quickly. Rarely did he require a handful of seconds to throw it downfield. Yet that’s hardly an excuse to Heyward. Pittsburgh’s already matched its total of sackless games from 2015, when it finished with 48 sacks in all, a nearly 50 percent jump from the 33 the Steelers collected in 2014.
The pocket got awfully uncomfortable in the pocket for the opposing quarterback at times, helping the Steelers for 30 turnovers in 2015, a significant uptick from the 21 they forced in 2014. All that heat helped Pittsburgh make the playoffs for a second straight season despite finishing 30th in the league against the pass. While two of Cousins’ throws ended up in the arms of guys in a different colored jersey — momentum-turning plays that served as the fuel for an eventual blowout — Cousins passed for 329 yards and his jersey didn’t even get dirty.
“I’m not OK that we gave up yards, no,” Butler said. “At the same time, we’ll get better, I think, as the year goes along. At the end of the day, it’s still about winning, not about how many yards we gave up or where we’re at defensively in the league. Would I like to be No. 1 in the league? Of course I would. At the same time, I want to make sure we win, too.”
Butler is likely to open up the playbook as the season goes on and rookie cornerback Artie Burns and rookie safety Sean Davis become more comfortable. Their development would allow Butler to get creative in finding ways to let outside linebackers James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Jarvis Jones get to work coming in off the edge.
“I felt like we were definitely creating the climate we wanted,” Moats said. “We got the turnovers we needed.”
Just no sacks. Something the Steelers know can’t become a regular occurrence. Or else.
“I do think we have the guys,” Heyward said. “I have high goals for us and when we don’t hit them, I’m not going to be happy about it.”
Notes: WR Antonio Brown received a pair of fines from the NFL, one for the touchdown dance against Washington that drew a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct and another for wearing blue cleats, a violation of the league’s uniform policy. Brown did not rule out dancing again but added he didn’t want to do anything to hurt the team. … LB Ryan Shazier (knee) and WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder) are questionable. C Cody Wallace, CB Senquez Golson and FB Rosie Nix are out.