The list of the NFL Top 100 players of 2019, chosen by the players themselves, was recently released. The Steelers were well-represented overall — T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ben Roethlisberger made the grade — but the list notably left out former Pro Bowlers and All-Pros on the offensive line, like David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villenueva.
Although their peers might not think they’re elite, the Steelers offensive line ranked fourth in the NFL in adjusted sack rate (4.4 percent of pass attempts). And while the Steelers’ O-line isn’t known for having road-graders, they did rank fifth in the game in Football Outsiders’ power success rate. That stat measures how often a team gets a first down or a touchdown on third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go. This group keeps Roethlisberger upright, and can win battles in short-yardage situations.
• Sack master: Assuming he stays healthy and keeps playing at a high level, Cameron Heyward is poised to enter the upper-echelon of Steelers when it comes to sacks. Heyward, 30, ranks seventh on the franchise’s all-time list since the stat became official in 1982. Heyward has buried 45 QBs, which trails only Greg Lloyd (53.5), LaMarr Woodley (57), Keith Willis(59), Joey Porter (60), Jason Gildon (77) and James Harrison (80.5). The Steelers defense has changed in recent years, with defensive lineman being given more opportunities to pass-rush, but Heyward and Aaron Smith (44) are the only D-lineman to crack the top 10.
• Under pressure … to pressure: Despite ranking tied for first in the league in sacks last season (52), the Steelers’ defense was the definition of average in terms of points allowed (22.5, tied for 16th). One reason is that the unit was practically helpless when it didn’t manage to generate pressure on the quarterback. According to Football Outsiders, Pittsburgh’s D generated pressure at the second-highest rate (35 percent of snaps) among all teams. Pressures include sacks, hurries and forced scrambles. When they generated pressure, the Steelers had the 11th-best defense in the game. When they didn’t, though? They had the third-worst defense in the NFL, besting only the Buccaneers and Lions. That’s why the club added two athletic, rangy linebackers (Devin Bush and Mark Barron) and shelled out serious free agent cash for cornerback Steven Nelson. They desperately needed players who were better in coverage, and could hold it down when the pass rush doesn’t generate pressure.