Following a 26-15 defeat to the Buffalo Bills, there's very little to celebrate for a Pittsburgh Steelers team that feels so broken and defeated despite being 11-2 on the season.
Understandably so, as neither side of the ball was very appealing over the course of four quarters. With just three weeks until the postseason, a long look in the mirror is required of the Steelers before any talk of a Super Bowl returns.
Although a plethora of problems were encountered by Pittsburgh on Sunday night, the Steelers did manage to etch their names in history books by recording a sack in 70 straight regular season games, breaking a tie with the 1999-2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.
70 regular season games is quite the amount of time. In all, 29 different players have contributed to Pittsburgh's sack streak, with names ranging from Jarvis Jones to Sean Spence and every "Oh I remember that guy!" name in-between.
While the Steelers very much-so have their work cut out for them, such a lengthy accomplishment deserves recognition, and perhaps even celebration. To fully appreciate Pittsburgh's accomplishment, we must start at the beginning.
Game 1 of 70
It was week nine of the 2016 regular season, a 4-4 Pittsburgh football team traveled to Baltimore and ultimately fell short in a 21-14 loss to the Ravens. Eli Rogers lead the team with over 100 yards receiving, Lawrence Timmons paced the defense in tackles, and Artie Burns found himself on the receiving end of an errant Joe Flacco pass that day.
Although it took until the third quarter, Flacco was eventually brought down by James Harrison for the first of many in what's now a historic sack streak.
For reference on how long Pittsburgh's streak has been active, rookie running back Anthony McFarland wasn't even halfway through his senior year of high school when the streak began. Only two members of that 2016 defense started in Sunday night's loss, as Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were the only two players to see the sack streak in it's entirety. Vince Williams was also part of the squad that day but missed Pittsburgh's loss in Buffalo due to COVID-19.
The Steelers have lead/tied the league lead in sacks for the previous three seasons, becoming the only team in league history to accomplish such a feat since sacks began to be tracked in 1978. They're also the league leaders for sacks in 2020 with three games left.
Case in point: Pittsburgh's ability to get after the passer through such a long period of time is nothing short of impressive, especially considering the turnover of players from week nine of the 2016 season to present day.
Although the Steelers have seen faces come and go through their streak, a steady presence in the form of head coach Mike Tomlin has undoubtedly assisted in surging past the 1999-2003 Buccaneers' sack streak, where oddly enough, Tomlin spent time as Tampa Bay's defensive backs coach beginning in 2001.
Tomlin on the consistency of getting to the quarterback:
"Quality players, it starts there. Guys like Bud, T.J. [Watt], Cam [Heyward] and [Stephon] Tuitt, they provide a wave that we ride," said Tomlin.
"They are good individually. They are good collectively, and they are consistent in terms of their performances. I've been a part of several groups like that. I was fortunate enough to be a part of that Tampa group that this group often gets compared to, and that is something that they both have in common. They have great individual rushers who show up week in and week out. I'm fortunate to have that perspective."
Those four Tomlin mentioned (Dupree/Watt/Tuitt/Heyward) actually rank as the top four players to get to the quarterback during Pittsburgh's sack streak. During their run, those four have combined for 138 of the 237 sacks accumulated through the streak, per Steelers.com. They rank in the following order:
T.J. Watt- 46.5 sacks
Bud Dupree- 35.5 sacks
Cam Heyward- 32 sacks
Stephon Tuitt- 24 sacks
Tomlin on the similarities/differences between his current defensive group and his former squad in Tampa Bay:
"Different schematics and obviously a different time. The evolution of the game and things makes comparisons somewhat challenging. The thing I think about when I think about the two groups are the quality individual rushers who rush well together collectively," said Tomlin.
"We had really good individual rushers in Tampa, guys like Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, but it was more than that. They rushed collectively well together, much like the group we have here. We have guys that you can characterize as really good individual rushers, but they rush very well together. The understanding of the larger body and how they fit into it makes it happen for them, that's what really provides the consistency that you guys mention and chronicle."
The tandem of Dupree/Watt has grown to be one of the best in the league in regards to rushing the passer, as the duo's 82 combined sacks during Pittsburgh's streak speaks for itself. While Watt's impact essentially began from the first snap of his career, Dupree's development was slower than some had hoped for a first-round selection.
Prior to the 2018 season, defensive coordinator Keith Butler announced that Watt/Dupree would swap sides of the ball, pinning Dupree at right outside linebacker and Watt on the opposite side.
The move assisted in catapulting Dupree's development by putting him in a better position to utilize his skillsets, as 2019 became Dupree's breakout season with 11.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits.
While some may consider the move minor, Butler's switch paid off for the Steelers' pass rush production in a big way and ultimately played a big role in their current streak.
With historic nicknames such as the Steel Curtain/Blitzburgh and an assembly line of dominant pass-rushers, what better place for the sack streak's new home than Pittsburgh?
The Steelers know not just how to get to the quarterback, but how to do so in significant ways, as the Steelers have recorded five or more sacks in 17 of their current 70 game streak, good enough for nearly once in every four games.
Their most dominant performances during the streak are as followed:
8 Sacks vs. Cincinnati (2019)
8 Sacks vs. Cleveland (2016)
7 Sacks vs. Denver (2020)
7 Sacks vs. Cleveland (2018)
7 Sacks vs. Cleveland (2017)
7 Sacks vs. Houston (2017)
You may notice a trend of Cleveland on the above list, as the Browns have allowed the most sacks to the Steelers during their current streak (44).
As it turns out, Pittsburgh also knows how to find the end zone without Ben Roethlisberger on the field. Three sacks have resulted in a Steelers touchdown during their sack streak:
Javon Hargrave in 2016
L.J. Fort in 2018
Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019
How Much Further Can Pittsburgh Take Their Streak?
The lone sack by Tyson Alualu on Sunday night was Pittsburgh's first one sack outing since week fifteen of last season. With key pieces of their front seven out and some positions down to bare bones, how much longer can the Steelers realistically keep their streak up?
Next on the schedule for Pittsburgh: The Cincinnati Bengals, who have allowed the second-most sacks in the NFL (46) through thirteen games. With four sacks against the Bengals in their last meeting, it's fair to assume the streak continues past their Monday Night Football meeting in week fifteen.
However, Pittsburgh's final opponents (Indianapolis/Cleveland) rank near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed. The Steelers have allowed a league-low 11 quarterback sacks, yet the Colts (15) and Browns (17) aren't far behind.
Numbers don't tell the full story, and the game of football surely isn't played on paper. Although the Steelers are indeed missing key starters across their front seven, their chances of bringing the quarterback down should always be high when T.J. Watt is on the field, complemented by a stellar supporting cast.
Pittsburgh just broke a historic mark, proving how difficult of a journey it truly was to break the record in the first place. Records typically aren't shattered, and a tough ending to the regular season mixed with injuries doesn't bode well for Pittsburgh's chances to continue that streak into 2021.
The Steelers are currently on a two-game losing streak, and if we didn't know any better, we'd say almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in the last two weeks. It's a shame Pittsburgh won't get to recognize this achievement due to more important issues, but perhaps that's a good thing. People want Lombardi's, not sack records.
Yet when the dust settles on this season, regardless of how the Steelers finish, everybody should take a moment and appreciate what Pittsburgh was able to accomplish.