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Steelers' pass-rush gets boost from return of two key defensive players in 2020

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PITTSBURGH -- Signs of Bud Dupree’s dominant season-to-be were evident from his first sack of 2019.

And, that sack of Tom Brady late in the third quarter of the Sunday night season opener against the New England Patriots gives a clear window into why the Pittsburgh Steelers thought it vital to keep the Kentucky product around for at least another season with the franchise tag.

Lined up on the left side, T.J. Watt commanded the Patriots’ attention on the third-and-5 play, as New England used at least three players to slow Watt, but it didn’t matter.

On the right side, another force was coming for Brady.

As left tackle Isaiah Wynn came out to engage a patient Dupree, the edge rusher faked him out using a combination of swim moves, moving right, then left, then right again. Dupree created just enough space to slip by Wynn on the outside just in time to make a diving tackle of Brady. In one play, Dupree showed his maturity and relentless motor, displaying an ability to make the necessary in-game adjustments against Wynn and chase Brady after beating his man.

With the Steelers down 27-3 in the third quarter, Dupree’s first sack was hardly game-altering, but it gave the first glimpse at a budding pass-rush duo -- one the Steelers realized they couldn’t afford to separate by the time the pair racked up 26 of the team’s 54 sacks in Dupree’s breakout season. Entering his fifth season in the league, Dupree showed qualities that night that the Steelers had longed to see out of the former first-round pick -- and that eventually made tagging him and working out a long-term deal in the offseason a priority.

As the season went on, teams learned they couldn’t afford to give him quite as many one-on-one matchups. But he still managed to total a career-best 11.5 sacks.

“We feed off of each other,” Dupree said in November of his relationship with Watt. “He likes to have fun, I like to have fun. I’m dancing the whole game. I’m trying to keep the team hype. T.J. comes out with a lot of enthusiasm. You see it in his face. He’s got a roar in his eyes.

“It’s great to be on the other side of a player like that. T.J. draws a lot of attention, too. So I thought I was going to get a lot of one-on-ones the whole season, but it didn’t work like that. So whenever we get one-on-ones, I try to create havoc.”

In retaining both players, it creates a nearly impossible decision for teams facing the Steelers: prioritize Watt and leave Dupree to a one-on-one matchup, or prioritize Dupree and allow Watt to wreak havoc. Having two proficient edge rushers allows teams to be competitive on defense. Having two above-average pass-rushers allows a defense to be dominant. With Dupree and Watt back on the field for the 2020 season, the Steelers are primed to be the latter.

“Bud is balling,” Watt said midway through the season. “... I see the way that he approaches watching film and practice, and you just have a feeling when you’re playing. It seems like every week for me and Bud and this whole defense, we all just have feelings that it’s going to be a great game.

“We’re just trying to affect the game in any way we can. If they chip me, Bud’s going to be open. If they chip Bud, then I’m going to be open.”

Not only does the outside rush have a solid tandem in Dupree and Watt for 2020, but the interior pass-rush will also feature complementary interior players with the return of Stephon Tuitt to play alongside Cameron Heyward.

Tuitt and Heyward played in just six games together prior to Tuitt’s season-ending pectoral injury suffered against the Los Angeles Chargers. Each had 3.5 sacks in those games.

In the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks, Tuitt collected back-to-back sacks, first bringing down Russell Wilson with the assistance of Mark Barron, who was released by the Steelers last month, and then by himself.

Tuitt is an important piece of the defense. He showed as much in the Week 4 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals on the play that resulted in Dupree’s second sack of the season.

While Dupree beat his one-on-one matchup with the left tackle outside, Watt blitzed from the outside through the interior of the Bengals’ offensive line in a lane opened up by Tuitt's engaging the right guard and right tackle.

Dupree beat the crush of linemen to sack Andy Dalton and force a fumble.

“I have said this before about being in the prime of your career, I think he is getting to that point,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said after the Bengals win. “When does that come for a defensive lineman? A lot of times it takes them two or three years to learn what’s going on with a defense and where my help is and what I can do to take advantage of things. ... I think he is getting there.”

Once Tuitt went down, Heyward stepped up in a big way. He collected 5.5 of his nine sacks after Tuitt’s injury and finished with a career-high 83 tackles en route to his third Pro Bowl selection.

In Week 15 against the Arizona Cardinals, Heyward demonstrated a key part of his pass-rush ability with a late-fourth-quarter sack of Kyler Murray, pushing the left guard out of his way just enough to get an arm on Murray and bring him down.

With the defensive linemen and the outside linebackers primed to feature two strong tandems, the Steelers are set to create even more disruption up front in the upcoming season.