More sacks, big plays a priority

The Steelers have put such an emphasis on their linebackers rushing the quarterback in the past two decades that it's almost been a given that their leader in sacks every year would be an outside linebacker.

But, as Bob Dylan once crooned, the times they are a changing.

Defensive ends Kimo von Oelhoffen and Aaron Smith have led the team in sacks in each of the past two seasons with eight each, the first time that's happened since defensive end Keith Willis paced the team in sacks in 1985 and 1986.

In fact, since Mike Merriweather became the first linebacker to lead the Steelers in sacks in 1984 with a team-record 15, a linebacker has led the team in that statistic 14 times.

Yet the Steelers have not demphasized the value of the linebackers in their system. In fact, at this year's training camp at St. Vincent College, helping the linebackers get more sacks has become a priority.

"We went over our defensive team goals (last week) and looked at a chart of areas that we need to improve at," said outside linebacker Clark Haggans. "I know we finished first in the league in (total yards), but obviously, that didn't get it done, especially in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots put up 40-some points. We've got to make more plays. We're going to focus on getting more pressure, getting more sacks and just being better players on the field."

Haggans and Joey Porter combined for just 13 sacks last season – seven by Porter and six by Haggans – though Porter did lead the Steelers with 25 pressures. Haggans, meanwhile, had just 13 pressures – defined as a hit on the quarterback or getting close enough to him that he had to get rid of the ball more quickly than he wanted. That total ranked Haggans fourth on the team behind Porter, Smith and von Oelhoffen.

Though the Steelers led the NFL in total defense, they ranked just 10th in sacks with 41. That was a slight increase, however, from 2003, when Pittsburgh had 35 sacks, its lowest total since Bill Cowher became head coach in 1992.

"We need to do more as linebackers, no doubt," said Porter, who had just one sack in the team's final seven games last season. "That goes especially for Clark and me. That's one of the main things we're out here working on in this camp. We've got to put more pressure on the quarterback. And we shouldn't have to do it by blitzing all the time. We've got to win more one-on-one battles."

The Steelers have spent plenty of time on pass-rushing drills early in camp, having the linebackers rushing against running backs and tight ends in a blitz-pickup drill, and also sticking with its regular routine of a heavy dose of linebackers and defensive linemen versus the offensive line.

"It helps them too, but right now, they're pretty much tackling dummies for us," said Porter of the running backs and tight ends who have to pick them up in the blitz-pickup drill. "Those are the battles we should win every time."

But defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said the onus of generating more of a pass rush shouldn't fall solely on the shoulders of the outside linebackers.

"We never look at an individual position, we look at the overall performance of our defense," said LeBeau. "You see how a defense is performing in the passing game and it gives you a better barometer of the kind of pressure they're getting on the quarterback. We want to do better, but I think we did competitively well in the passing game. I think we were 10th in the league in sacks as a team. We'd like to do better than that. I think we were fourth in passing yardage. We'd like to do better than that. At the same time, those are not bad numbers. We're not isolating any particular area of the defense, we're looking to get better as a defense against the pass."


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