Press Conferences

Tomlin on pluses, minuses of blitzing

It's not quite Blitzburgh in terms of results, but it might yet get there as a result of it being more like Blitzburgh in terms of design.

The Steelers have 14 sacks through the first quarter of this regular season, and simple arithmetic will tell you that projects to a total of 56 over the course of the whole regular season. The franchise record for sacks in a 16-game season is 55, first reached in 2001 and then tied in 2004. The total of 14 to this point in 2015 has the Steelers' defense ranked fourth in the NFL in sacks after four weeks.

Quite a turnaround statistically for a unit that hadn't posted 40-plus sacks in a season since 2010 and hadn't finished in the 50s since 2008, and those two were the ones that ended with the Steelers playing in the Super Bowl.

"I wouldn't read too much into that," said Coach Mike Tomlin at his weekly news conference. "Ultimately, I believe your ability to pressure the quarterback is measured by your ability to rush with four, and we didn't do that a lot in the game (against the Ravens). We usually brought more than four, but that was that game plan. As we go forward, we want to establish a good, consistent rush that's steeped in the four-man principle."

The Steelers sacked Tom Brady twice, Colin Kaepernick five times, Nick Foles twice, and then Joe Flacco five times. Sacking Brady is very difficult because of his quick decision-making and release, but in the two Super Bowls the Patriots lost to the Giants, the New York defense was able to generate consistent pressure on him with its front four.

Flacco is another quarterback who is difficult to sack. He was sacked only 19 times in 554 pass attempts in 2014, and he came to Pittsburgh last Thursday night having been sacked only twice in the Ravens' first three games.

"We made an emphasis on working to get after (the Ravens) to minimize their play-action, and in doing so we probably got some quality one-on-one rush opportunities and were able to put the quarterback down some," said Tomlin. "Those are decisions you make in an effort to win the game. Sometimes you lean more heavily on pressuring the quarterback, and sometimes you don't. That was our mentality a week ago."

The Steelers had reported to Saint Vincent College back in July with the mentality that they needed to do a better job of pressuring the passer. Averaging 36.3 sacks over the past four seasons (2011-14) was seen as below the line, and also as somewhat complicit in a pass defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in 2014 while generating only 11 interceptions.

And if the Steelers have to blitz more to get the pressure they're looking for on opposing quarterbacks, defensive coordinator Keith Butler so far has been willing to be aggressive to create it.

"I know we did (blitz a lot) Thursday night, and that will be revealed to us as we continue to go about this thing," said Tomlin. "But we did what we felt was necessary to give us the best chance to win last Thursday.

There can be a flip side to being aggressive in the effort to get the quarterback on the ground, and that was revealed in the same game against the Ravens. Baltimore running back Justin Forsett finished with 150 yards rushing, the Ravens totaled 191 as a team, and Tomlin said some of that was the result of the Steelers coming after Flacco.

"They did a nice job in the game, and I don't want to take anything away from them, but we wanted to minimize their play-action pass," said Tomlin. "So we went into the game knowing we might give up a little bit in the run game in an effort to not get bogged down in the run and miss an opportunity to rush their play-pass. They got significant chunks (of yardage) via the play-pass going into our game, and so we wanted to attack that. We realized that in doing so we might expose yourself to some run. We probably exposed ourselves to a little more run than we anticipated, but you give them credit for executing from that standpoint."

One specific example from the game against the Ravens was that the very same blitz that pressured Flacco into throwing an interception to Ross Cockrell in the first half was gashed by Forsett for a 33-yard gain on a Baltimore touchdown drive in the third quarter.

"I'm disappointed but I'm not in any way discouraged by the growth and development of our guys in all three areas," said Tomlin. "That being said, we have to do enough to win along the way as we grow and improve."

"Ryan Shazier (shoulder) appears to be dramatically improving, but I'll list him as questionable. We'll monitor his progress throughout the week. Matt Spaeth has a broken hand and has a cast on that. We'll watch him operate and evaluate his level of effectiveness in terms of his participation with that injury. Markus Wheaton looks dramatically improved from the ankle injury he sustained in game, and he has a real chance to participate. Cortez Allen looks better with the swelling in his knee, and we'll watch him throughout the week and evaluate his preparation and see the effect it may have on his knee and make the determination there. Dan McCullers appears to be improved with his MCL sprain. He's got a chance to play. There's no real update on Ben (Roethlisberger) although he is progressing well and everyone is pleased with what they see from him."

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