James Harrison has a legitimate case to make the Hall of Fame. Becoming a fan favorite over the past decade, he has established himself as one of the best Steelers linebackers of all-time, which says a lot. With that said, it should be clear that there is no disrespect in saying that the fact that Harrison is the Steelers best pass-rushing linebacker three weeks into the 2016 season is quite alarming.
Pittsburgh Steelers Outside Linebacker Problem
Harrison is 38 years old now. This is not the James Harrison who recorded the longest touchdown return in Super Bowl history. Now, this is the James Harrison who is playing in just 42 percent of the team’s snaps, and that’s primarily for the purpose of adding to an edge rush that would be almost non-existent without him.
Arthur Moats has the only sack on the team through three weeks. On that play, Moats dropped into coverage, and it was the scrambling of Andy Dalton that led to the sack and a small loss. Aside from that, the only player to stand out as a pass-rusher from the outside linebacker group in terms of pressure has been Harrison. In fact, it should be noted that both Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats have been assets in coverage more than in rushing the quarterback.
Who is going to step up?
Moats is what he is; the 29-year-old recorded only his 14th career takedown in his seventh NFL season. Moats is a free agent this offseason, but he is a guy who could be retained to perform in a similar role next season.
As aforementioned, the most impressive things Jones has done this year have been in coverage. Though being lined up in a variety of spots by disguise to confuse offenses, he is not providing a legitimate pass rush this season. A free agent this coming offseason, Jones is unlikely to be retained unless he shows some evidence of pass disruption.
Bud Dupree has a huge chip on his shoulder now. He was the first-round pick. He is supposed to be the player to take a step forward in 2016, make a difference in the pass rush and give the Steelers assurance that he was the future beyond Harrison. Unfortunately, Dupree is on injured reserve, and it is unknown when he will be back. The fact that the Steelers placed Dupree on IR and did not do the same for Senquez Golson presumably reveals which player they anticipate returning quicker.
Chickillo has been given a chance to see the field due to the injury to Dupree. Through three games, he has played in 26 percent of the team’s snaps, and those have hardly been coverage snaps. Chickillo has the job of going after the quarterback, and while it is his first chance in a limited role, he has not provided much. The scary thing is that until at least week eight, he is the only player with upside to provide a chance to make an impact for the unit.
What can the Steelers do?
Last week the Steelers came out with a similar defensive scheme to the one in which they ran in the first two weeks. It features a lot of nickel formations and four-man rushes. The blitzes are not too mysterious. Some quarterbacks do not know what to do with time to throw the ball and nobody open. Carson Wentz proved on Sunday that if he is given time to think in the pocket, he is going to make smart decisions.
What the Steelers are going to need to do is disguise their blitzes. Lawrence Timmons this year has shown notable lapses in coverage. However, in the run game and potentially blitzing from a variety of positions, value for Timmons can be found. The team has experimented with Ryan Shazier on the edge and may be able to use him in a variety of blitzing roles. Mixing and matching who comes and who drops between the four linebackers on the field, along with the safeties and cornerbacks, has to show up in the next few weeks for the Steelers to provide a pass rush. As the games become more important, the pass rush must prove stronger or else the Steelers won’t reach their fullest potential.