Steelers

Kovacevic: Quit picking on my man Bud … he’s been everything Steelers have asked

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Bud Dupree. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

CINCINNATI -- My man Bud Dupree's got four sacks. For an edge rusher in a 3-4 defense, spread over a dozen weeks, for a first-round pick, that stinks. And his 29 tackles aren't exactly terrifying, either.

It's Jarvis Jones territory, really.

But my man Bud -- and Dupree's got one of those warm, welcoming personalities that pretty much forces one to come up with an affectionate prefix -- has been anything but a bust, contrary to some mounting public grumbling. So before the Steelers and Bengals boot the ball tonight at Paul Brown Stadium, before all the standard fire and bluster of this bona fide bitter rivalry, I thought this might present a fine time to make a clean, rational case to clear Dupree's good name.

I could, of course, begin and end this column with the following assessment over the weekend from the defensive captain.

"Bud? Seriously?" Cam Heyward came back with a laugh when I brought up some common Dupree criticisms. "Wow, no, that just couldn't be further from the truth."

But I'm guessing some critics will need just a little bit more to be convinced.

So let's start here: No, the stats aren't sexy, to say the least. And they'll be seen as even less in Pittsburgh, where our collective view of the edge rusher has been one of relentlessly pursuing the passer. Like that of Kevin Greene, maybe the most one-dimensional player in franchise history, who'd do nothing more than pin his ears back and chase the quarterback while his teammates, notably opposite-edge mate Greg Lloyd, did the grunt work. Or like the prime versions of LaMarr Woodley, Joey Porter, Jason Gildon and others.

We like our edge rushers with some splash.

We like, for example, T.J. Watt. Because we've seen what he can do. He's got 37 tackles, five sacks, six passes defensed and an interception. Dude blocked a field goal, too. As splash goes, he's shown his share of Michael Phelps.

But Dupree, by contrast, can seemingly disappear over long stretches of a given game. His No. 48 doesn't get called. His face doesn't find the camera. And the thought pops to mind: Jarvis II.

"I'm just trying to do my role," my man Bud began in our lengthy talk at the Rooney Sports Complex. "We all have a lot of different goals set, all of us personally, for the season. But you've got to put that aside for the betterment of the team."

Sacks. We're talking about sacks, right?

"Yeah, I set a goal of 15."

That's not happening.

"It was a big goal. I wanted 15. I really wanted it. Sometimes I feel like I'm so athletic I can do a lot. And that's because I know I have the talent for that."

What he didn't have, as it turned out, was the flexibility in Keith Butler's scheme.

Dupree estimated for me that he's been required to drop back into pass coverage "probably about 75 percent of the time," and I had that figure independently corroborated by our Christopher Carter, whose season-long film study found the same rate.

"It's a different role for me, something I hadn't done in college," Dupree said. "But I'm OK with it. I need to help the team win. It's just so great, actually, to be part of all this winning. And I know the coaches see my effort. The coaches see what I'm doing, and they appreciate it. I'm just going to continue to work to get better."

Dupree's primary assignment in pass coverage has been the tight end. And to that end, the results are ... if not crystal clear because of all the other people involved in coverage, at least compelling: Opposing tight ends have been targeted 79 times for 44 catches, 482 yards -- an average of just 43.8 yards per game -- and just two touchdowns.

That's the eighth-fewest yards allowed to tight ends by any NFL defense, and it's the third-fewest touchdowns.

Now, Sean Davis has been pivotal in this regard, frequently approaching the line to pick up the tight end. But when the safeties are back, so is Bud, challenged to use that athleticism in coverage. And there's no better measure of his success than those figures, as well as this far less tangible question: When was the last time someone's tight end really kicked the Steelers' rear end?

Know what I mean?

Remember how all those Todd Heap types used to just torment Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defenses?

I walked over to a couple other stalls and put the question to the decidedly biased two-man committee of Ryan Shazier and Vince Williams, and the best they could come up with was the Titans' Delanie Walker having six catches for 92 yards, and that's fair, especially weighing one of those gaining 42 yards. At the same time, that's the norm for Walker, a star at his position who's had seven games of five-plus catches this season despite an erratic quarterback in Marcus Mariota.

No shame there.

Shazier and Williams also tried the Lions' talented Eric Ebron on me, no doubt still stung by his 44-yard catch that led to a late score. But I shot that down, arguing that Ebron had only one other catch that day, and no one bit back.

Carter left his door unlocked, so let's sneak into his film room for a minute:

This is an inspired place to start, if only because it's what the Nation would love to witness tonight, meaning Dupree wrestling Andy Dalton to the ground. As you can see, when left to his own devices, Dupree smartly avoids the Bengals' right tackle and uses Javon Hargrave's deliberate block to twist to the middle and find a Parkway-sized route to Dalton. And there aren't many quarterbacks who can escape Dupree in a full sprint.

But that's the fun part, and the rest is the day job.

The play above is Dupree making life miserable in a different way for a different friend to the franchise, Joe Flacco. All he does there is line up in the flat, go stride for stride with Flacco's first option and, ultimately, force an incomplete pass elsewhere.

They don't make dances for that, at least not yet.

The play above has Dupree again following Flacco's first option. He starts at the line of scimmage in apparent pass-rushing mode, but it's a Butler ruse. Dupree drops back, this time down the field, Flacco's got nowhere to go -- the bad snap didn't help -- and Heyward and Watt pounce on Flacco.

Heyward and Watt do a dance, Dupree's way down the field, and the citizenry might wonder why my man Bud couldn't have been up there, too.

Well, it's because he was doing what's best for business.

"I have no problem with that," Dupree said. "I want to win."

That's the real undercurrent here: Butler has quietly uncovered a way to shore up a longstanding weakness in the LeBeau scheme, and he's done it by utilizing a pass rusher as basically a triple-threat. Dupree drops back, he rushes the passer, and let's not forget that both he and Watt have sealed off the rushing edges that, early on, the Bears and Jaguars were blowing up for big plays.

Ask me, and that's a rather smartly invested first-round pick, as well as a feather for the player himself.

"Here's what you need to realize," Heyward continued from the above conversation. "Us guys up front, we're going straight ahead on almost every down. And Bud, even when he's rushing the passer, usually can't just come up with us. He's usually got to at least chip that tight end before letting him go. That slows him down. Or it should slow him down. But somehow he still gets back there with us at about the same time."

Imagine if he were allowed to go at will. Untouched.

"Hoo-boy," my man Bud responded to that with the broadest of smiles. "It'd be very different."