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Blitzburgh: Sack-happy defense leads Steelers

PITTSBURGH — The pressure came from everywhere. Up the middle. Off the edge. On stunts. On good old-fashioned one-on-one domination.

Still, Denver quarterback Jeff Driskel thought he’d figured things out late on Sunday afternoon, leading the Broncos down to the Pittsburgh 15 with less than two minutes to go. The door for a stunning upset on the road had swung wide open.

It slammed shut in less than 3 seconds, or the time it took Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds to rush in untouched to get Pittsburgh’s seventh and final sack on Sunday. Edmunds’ second career sack preserved a 2-0 start and offered another wrinkle in a seemingly endless string of exotic packages conjured up by defensive coordinator Keith Butler.

Edmunds typically drops into coverage. Yet when a Denver receiver ran in motion, Edmunds found himself tight against the line of scrimmage. At the snap, there was nothing between the third-year safety and Driskel but green grass. Ten steps later, Driskel was down and the Steelers were still unbeaten.

“Anyone on our defense can make a play at any time,” Edmunds said with a shrug.

It’s not lip service. Eight different players have at least half a sack through two games. Four members of the front seven have knocked down at least one pass. Oh, and the Steelers have blitzed an NFL-high 64 percent of the time, sewing seeds of chaos that overwhelmed New York’s Daniel Jones, knocked out Denver starter Drew Lock and forced backup Driskel to spend a considerable portion of the game on the run.

While coach Mike Tomlin downplayed his team’s propensity to pin its ears back and attack, the first two games have simply been another step in an evolution of a unit that’s returned to its “Blitzburgh” roots.

When the team promoted Butler to replace Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau in 2015, it gave him a mandate: put more pressure on the quarterback, it doesn’t matter how. The Steelers were 26th in sacks in 2014. They’ve never finished lower than eighth under Butler and have led the league in sacks three years running.

They’re second through two weeks in 2020 and perhaps most importantly, it’s not outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree doing damage. Cornerback Mike Hilton has a sack. So does nose tackle Tyson Alualu, who took over when Javon Hargrave bolted in free agency. Inside linebacker Vince Williams has taken advantage of an uptick in playing time to earn one. And Edmunds’ fourth-quarter sprint to Driskel was his first since he was a rookie in December 2018.

“It starts with our front and our linebackers,” said Hilton, whose 8 1/2 sacks since 2017 are tied for second most in the NFL by a defensive back over that span. “The offensive line is so worried about the guys up front, me and Terrell and guys in the secondary have a chance to go make plays.”

The path to the quarterback could get more difficult on Sunday against Houston (0-2). Jones is in his second year in the NFL. So is Lock. Driskel is a journeyman. Texans star DeShaun Watson is less likely to be confused by whatever the Steelers throw at him. And they know it.

“We’ve got a test on our hands,” defensive tackle Cam Heyward said.

One Pittsburgh will have to pass if it wants to get off to its first 3-0 start since 2017. The Steelers entered the season with sky-high expectations thanks in part to a defense that returned 10 of 11 starters. That continuity has allowed Butler to do less teaching and more experimenting. It’s one of the reasons Edmunds found himself bearing down on Driskel with the game on the line.

It’s not something Edmunds expects to do on a regular basis. Yet it’s now on tape, meaning it’s a possibility, meaning opponents have to game plan for it.

“When we get to that, you can’t just slide your O-line one way because we could be coming from so many different ways,” Heyward said. “That allows us to get one-on-ones in the pass rush game and that’s when we can really make you pay.”

The Steelers haven’t been going all-out against the pass at the expense of the run defense. They’ve allowed the fewest yards on the ground through two weeks.

With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back from right elbow surgery, they’ve been able to play with the lead late against Denver and New York, forcing them to throw to get back in the game and providing even more opportunities for the defense to do what it does as well as any team in the league.

“We like to communicate a lot so I think doing that allows us to play fast, have confidence in each other,” Heyward said. “But it’s only been two weeks. I’m not going to get ahead of myself and think that we’ve accomplished anything. We have to be a defense on the rise. We have to continue to improve week in and week out.”

NOTES: Pro Bowl G David DeCastro practiced on Wednesday, a significant step in his return from a left knee injury that forced him to miss the first two games.

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