To blitz or not to blitz? That is the question

It's no secret the Steelers' defense hasn't been as prolific getting to the quarterback this season.

When you take the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year who happened to match the NFL single-season sack record out of a defense as has happened to the Steelers with T.J. Watt missing the past six games, that's bound to have an effect on your pass rush.

But the Steelers failed to get to the quarterback even once in last week's 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins, marking the third time this season they did not record a sack in a game. That's already one more sack-less game than the Steelers had all of last season when they extended their NFL record with their fifth consecutive season of leading the league in sacks.

With just 12 sacks through their first seven games, the Steelers (2-5) are unlikely to extend their league record to six-straight seasons of leading the NFL in sacks, even with Watt returning soon from the Reserve/Injured List.

But getting to the quarterback a few times or more this weekend when the Steelers travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles, the NFL's last unbeaten team at 6-0, might help the team pull off an upset.

Doing so against mobile quarterback Jalen Hurts won't be easy, largely because the Eagles quarterback is getting rid of the ball much more quickly than he did in his first season as a full-time starter in 2021. Hurts held the ball on average for 3.12 seconds a year ago and was still sacked just 26 times all season playing behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines.

This year, he's getting rid of the ball in 2.76 seconds, though he has been sacked 15 times in Philadelphia's first six games.

The difference?

Teams didn't blitz Hurts all that often in 2021. That has changed, however, recently, as teams have pressured him a little more with the blitz and he hasn't handled it quite as well. In the first four weeks of the season, teams were blitzing him 33 percent of the time, since then, he's been blitzed at a 49 percent rate, perhaps because he's averaging just 4.9 yards per depth of target when blitzed.

The Steelers, however, are blitzing just 24.1 percent of the time this season, down from 24.9 percent last season and 40.3 percent in 2020.

"It's more the way things have played out," said defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. "Obviously, we've had some injuries in the secondary, so when you lose some guys, maybe you don't want to expose them as much. So, we had to mix it up and do some things a little differently. I think if the situation calls for it and we need to, we've got to be able to get after people."

The situation might just call for it this week.

And the Steelers are getting more healthy in the secondary after having their top three cornerbacks – Cam Sutton, Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace – and safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds all banged up at various points thus far this season.

But that doesn't mean the Steelers will just flip the switch and go after Hurts on every down.

"I think with a mobile quarterback, you have to pick your spots," Austin said. "If they pick it up or he gets outside, it becomes a huge play. Like anytime, we try to pick and choose when the right times will be. Sometimes we're good, sometimes we're not so good. That's the challenge every week."

The Steelers, however, are very accustomed to playing against mobile quarterbacks. After all, they face Baltimore's Lamar Jackson twice per season and have played against Buffalo's Josh Allen several times, as well.

They don't get much better in terms of mobility than those two – though the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hurts is close. He has 248 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground already this season. And his 19 rushing touchdowns over the past three seasons are the most by any quarterback, even though he wasn't a full-time starter in 2020.

The Steelers have done a good job against the true running quarterbacks such as Jackson over the last few years by treating them like they're running backs and making sure they hit them as such.

That won't change this week.

"The way the rules are, you have to treat him like a running back," said defensive lineman Cam Heyward. "You can't just sit back and let them follow their reads because they can potentially run the ball."

But because the Eagles run so many short passes with their RPOs – just 7.1 percent of Hurts' passes this season have traveled 20 or more yards downfield – the ball is coming out quickly or he's taking off.

The Steelers just faced Miami's RPO-fueled offense last week, and after a slow start in which they allowed 13 points in the first quarter, they gave up just three points the remainder of the game.

So, they're now a little more in tune with what they have to do, but Hurts' running ability – which is superior to that of Miami's Tua Tagovailoa – adds another dimension.

"The RPOs will slow down a pressure and that's what they're for," Austin said. "We had a couple of pressures called early (last week) and that ball was out before our guys could get there. So, you change and figure out how the flow of the game is going. 

"We need to get more pressure. Part of it is the RPOs. Part of it is that we've just got to do a better job of rushing and getting home. Maybe we've got to do a couple of things scheme-wise to help our guys get there. It's a concern in the sense that we're not getting a lot of pressure. But we are disruptive. … It's one of those things that we've got to figure out a way to get pressure and we've got to finish."