Blitzburgh is back: Steelers getting after QBs at a championship rate

PITTSBURGH -- The guys raising their hands to blitz in the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive huddle are easy enough to guess.

Often, inside linebacker Vince Williams and nickelback Mike Hilton are the pair eagerly volunteering to attack the quarterback.

Two weeks into the season, the defensive stats show it. Hilton has two sacks, while Williams has one -- the fastest sack in the league, when he took down New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones in 2.26 seconds in the Week 1 win. Williams also leads the NFL with six tackles for loss, and Hilton is in a 10-way tie for second with three. Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt also has three.

"I would raise my hand all the time too," defensive coordinator Keith Butler said with a laugh. "I don't blame them. Because as much as you do it, the more you do it, the more of a feel you get in terms of when they are going to snap the ball. How does that come? You look at the play clock some. You just get a feel for it out on the field some."

But the thing that makes the Steelers' defense so scary is that the blitz doesn't just come from Williams and Hilton. Anyone on the field is capable of bringing pressure, making it impossible for offenses to contain all of the threats.

Through two weeks, the Steelers are bringing pressure at a championship-level rate. They're outpacing the rest of the league by a wide margin, bringing the blitz 64% of the time, well above the NFL average of 28%, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Not only that, the Steelers' defense has pressured opposing quarterbacks on almost half of their dropbacks (46%, to be exact) this season. Each of the previous two defenses that had a higher rate through two games went on to win the Super Bowl. The 2015 Broncos were pressuring on 50% of dropbacks, while the 2018 Patriots pressured on 49.5%.

Figuring out how to thwart the Steelers' pass rush is an especially tall task for the Houston Texans (0-2), who face the undefeated Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). Through two weeks, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has posted the second-worst Total QBR (22) against the blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Info data. In those situations, he has thrown two interceptions and no touchdowns. He also has been sacked eight times.

"We have certain guys that love to be the blitzer," Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. "Those are usually our blitzers. Sometimes, we've got to say calm down, we've got to set it up. ... You can't just slide your O-line one way because we could be coming from so many different ways, then it allows us to get one-on-ones in the pass rush game, and that's when we can really make you pay."

The Steelers do have a couple of guys who are generally not going to blitz. Corners Joe Haden and Steve Nelson aren't likely to be in the blitzing conversation as they cover the back end, but safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds have been called on to bring pressure. In the game-sealing play against the Denver Broncos, Edmunds blitzed as the Broncos faced fourth down from the Steelers' 15-yard-line and sacked quarterback Jeff Driskel for an 11-yard loss.

Edmunds didn't specifically ask to be the blitzer prior to that play, it just worked out well, Heyward said.

"Terrell didn't really say that, but he was in the right place at the right time, and he made us all look right," Heyward said.

The Steelers last won the Super Bowl with a monster defense, one that is comparable to this year's unit. Through two games in 2008, the Steelers had seven sacks. This year's team has 10. There are some differences, though.

Opponents' QBRs were much lower through two games in 2008 -- 32, as compared with 50 this season -- and that team held opponents to 221 yards per game as compared to 305 this year.

The Steelers also are blitzing 64% of the time now as compared with just 36% in 2008.

But Butler cautioned against reading too much into the blitz rate just two games into the season.

"You can't do anything all the time in the National Football League defensively, I don't think, because it catches up to you," he said. "That's not the only thing we do. We do it well, and I like the results that have been of it. There's also the downside, and some of the downside is you put your corners and your secondary -- you put them in trouble a little bit. We can't do that.

"We want to be aggressive. We want to get after people and all that stuff, but we have to be smart in how we do it also."

Blitzing might put the Steelers' secondary in some trouble, as Butler put it. But with All-Pro safety Fitzpatrick and Pro Bowler Haden, along with Nelson and Edmunds, the secondary is uniquely equipped to handle the extra stress.

"We welcome it," Fitzpatrick said. "We get paid to cover receivers, cover tight ends, cover running backs. That's our job. It is a little bit tougher. We trust our D-line. We've got probably the best defensive line, front seven, across the league. We trust them to get there fast, and they trust us to cover on the back end and not bust any assignments. And I think we execute that very well around the board."