Now that the first weekend of the NFL season is wrapped up, it’s time for all the hot takes and overreactions to what took place across the NFL. There were so many surprising outcomes and noteworthy storylines over the first NFL weekend, but one team that caught my eye was the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers entered the 2021 season with more uncertainty than they have ever had in the Mike Tomlin era. Fresh off a season that saw the team start with an 11-0 record and then tail off to finish the season at 12-4 with a wild-card blowout loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers were a team trending in the wrong direction. Then this offseason saw the Steelers lose a ton in free agency and this roster, which has been amongst the league’s best for over a decade, all of a sudden had some very big holes. But still, the team opened with a Week 1 road win against a very talented Buffalo Bills football team.
One area specifically that the Steelers suffered a major loss in was their pass-rushing group, as they lost star rusher Bud Dupree in free agency to the Tennessee Titans. Dupree, a former first-round pick of the team back in 2015, had an outstanding 2020 season, recording eight sacks in just 11 games before going down with a torn ACL. Dupree and T.J. Watt combined to form one of the best pass-rushing duos in all of football, and together they caused a ton of problems for opposing offensive tackles.
In a perfect world, the Steelers would have liked to retain Dupree, but the team simply couldn’t afford to do so. Even after suffering a torn ACL, Dupree still commanded a massive five-year, $85 million contract, making him one of the highest-paid pass rushers in the league.
The loss of Dupree theoretically should have been major considering his past success. However, after watching the Steelers' Week 1 win against the Bills, I think they are going to be just fine at pass rusher because the newly-acquired Melvin Ingram looked phenomenal.
Every year, big-name and aging veterans hit the open market and find new homes as their former team looks to get younger and cheaper at the position. This is not to say that those players aren’t still capable of helping a football team win, just that in the team-building process it made more sense to go in a different direction. This year, Ingram was one such player. A former three-time Pro Bowler with the Chargers, Ingram hit free agency for the first time in his 10-year career. Ingram was an extremely productive player with the Chargers and has been one of the better pass rushers in football. He has recorded 49 sacks in his career and that’s with him being used as a traditional stand-up outside backer early in his career and not being utilized as a pass rusher. His departure with the Chargers was more about the team getting younger and cheaper at the position and less about his overall talent.
Yet, for as talented as Ingram is, it took five months for him to be signed. For a player with his pedigree, that’s entirely too long. The Steelers were able to scoop Ingram up late in the summer just before training camp and got him on a one-year discount contract.
The fact that Ingram has battled injuries over the last couple of seasons undoubtedly hurt his stock in free agency. A lingering knee injury forced Ingram to miss all but seven games last season and it was the first year in his career in which he didn’t record a sack. That being said, when he is healthy, Ingram is a difference-maker. From 2015-2019, Ingram recorded 43 sacks and forced 10 fumbles. To get a player of that caliber for cheap so late in free agency is just an absolute huge win for the Steelers' front office.
When you take a closer look at the fit between the Steelers and Ingram, the signing is just that much better. Having played alongside one of the best edge rushers in football in Joey Bosa, Ingram knows how to play with a star pass rusher like he is currently doing with Watt. Ingram’s athleticism and versatility allow defensive coordinators to move him all over the field, creating unfair mismatches. Whether that’s lining him up over the center and letting him use his speed and quickness inside to get home or lining him up right next to Bosa or Watt and using him on stunts and games, his presence when healthy puts a ton of stress on opposing offenses. Having a player with the ability and versatility of Ingram paired with an All-Pro rusher like Watt, will force offenses to have to single block Ingram and he has shown time and time again to be able to win his one-on-one matches with a combination of his incredible quickness and change of direction or his raw power.
On Sunday, Ingram and Co. proved that the loss of Dupree may not have been a loss at all and could very well be addition by subtraction. The Steelers finished the game with 30 overall pressures on Josh Allen’s 54 pass attempts all while blitzing just twice. The Steelers were able to get pressure by rushing with four or even sometimes three, which allows them to play more coverage. Among the top five players with pass-rush pressures from Week 1, three Steelers made the list with star defensive tackle Cam Heyward leading the way with 12 while Watt and Ingram tied for third with eight pressures a piece.
A healthy Ingram is just as talented if not more talented than Dupree, and he is also a much better player than Dupree in the run game. If this is how the Steelers' defensive line is going to look without Stephon Tuitt (who is on injured reserve dealing with a knee injury), then Pittsburgh is going to be a factor in a loaded AFC.