With or Without You: Bud Dupree was a high impact player for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Bud Dupree missed the last 6 games of the 2020 season, and on the surface it is pretty easy to take the record with Bud Dupree (11-0) and compare it to the record without Bud Dupree (1-5) and say the Steelers were better with Bud Dupree than they were without. We are going to go beyond that, look at team defensive numbers to see the difference in the end result, and also what parts of the Steelers defense struggled or improved when Bud Dupree was not playing.

We’re going to start back at 2014, Dick LeBeau’s last season as defensive coordinator.


Setting the stage

The Steelers defense was in bad shape, they ranked 18th in both total points and yards allowed, the Steelers worst NFL rankings since 1991, Chuck Noll’s last season. But the reality was worse. The Steelers offense was designed to eat clock and keep the defense off the field, and it worked. The Steelers defense played the 2nd fewest snaps in the NFL, and faced the 4th fewest drives in the NFL. When you look at per play and per drive numbers, the Steelers ranked 31st in yards per play (6.0) and 25th in points per drive allowed.

Heading into 2015 the Steelers swapped Brandon Boykin and Ross Cockrell in for Brice McCain and the last year of Ike Taylor, replaced Troy Polamalu with Will Allen. At linebacker Ryan Shazier played in 3 more games. On the front line the Steelers replaced Jason Worilds with Bud Dupree and Brett Keisel retired, clearing the way for Stephon Tuitt to start.

I needed to cover that because that is a very small turnover in talent. It was mostly the same defense that was terrible in 2014.

The big change was Keith Butler’s new pass rushing philosophy. The Steelers changed from the defensive line two-gapping while the linebackers rushed the quarterback to setting the defensive line free to attack and putting more responsibilities on the linebackers.

It was that change that made the difference in the defense. With comparable talent on the field the defense improved, going from 25th in yards per rush allowed to 6th, and improving their sack rate from 26th in the NFL to 9th. The only change in personnel was Dupree replacing the Steelers leading sack getter from 2014. The top 3 sack artists from 2014 combined for 20.5, and the team recorded 33 total sacks. in 2015 the top 3 Steelers sackers combined for only 18.5 and the team recorded 48 sacks. The number of Steelers with 3+ sacks doubled from 4 in 2014 to 8 in 2015.

Blitzburgh was reborn, a team that sent pressure from anywhere and everywhere, and lived off creating pressure through the middle. Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Lawrence Timmons all had 5 or more sacks. James Harrison led the edge rushers with 5. The outside linebackers combined for 9 passes defended, the inside linebackers defended 11. And that’s Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker.

The defense had changed, under Keith Butler, and it really stood out that the first pick of the Keith Butler era was Bud Dupree.


The Pre-T.J. Watt years

When people talk about the rise of the Steelers pass rushing dominance, they tend to start in 2017, when T.J. Watt was drafted, but it started before that. In 2015, with almost the identical defense that ended the 2014 season 26th in sacks with 2.06 sacks per game, Keith Butler’s defense recorded 3 sacks a game and ended the season third in the NFL in sacks.

Remember the personnel change was largely Bud Dupree replacing Jason Worilds, and Worilds had 3.5 more sacks in 2014 than Dupree did in 2015. It wasn’t a change in talent, it was a change in scheme.

But then the 2016 season happened. Bud Dupree missed the first 9 games of the 2016 season. In those 9 games the Steelers recorded 13 sacks, 1.44 sacks per game. In 4 of those 9 games the Steelers didn’t record a sack at all. In the 7 games Bud Dupree returned and played, the Steelers recorded 24 sacks, 3.43 sacks a game.

Furthermore, the Steelers forced 10 turnovers in the first 9 games, and 13 in the last 7. If you add in the 3 playoff games the Steelers played in, they recorded 8 sacks and 5 turnovers in those games as well.

Without Bud Dupree: 9 games, 13 sacks (1.44 per game), 10 turnovers (1.11 per game).

With Bud Dupree: 10 games, 32 sacks (3.2 per game), 18 turnovers (1.8 per game).

You might be thinking that other player changes impacted those results, Only one player missed more time in one half of the season than the other though, and that was Cameron Heyward. Heyward played 7 of the first 9 games, and didn’t play afterwards. Meaning that the Steelers had Cameron Heyward for all but 2 games when Dupree was out, and they didn’t play together at all in 2016.

And yet the defense got many more sacks and turnovers with Dupree than they did with Heyward. Don’t read that as a knock on Heyward, he’s a phenomenal player, and he was in 2016.

They weren’t just finishing sacks, if you look at QB hits, the Steelers hit the quarterback 44 times in the first 9 games (4.9 per game), and 78 times in the last 10 games (7.8 per game). The biggest jump was from the middle linebackers, Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons and Vince Williams combined for 3 sacks and 7 QB hits in the first 9 games, in the 10 games with Bud Dupree they accounted for 7 sacks and 21 QB hits. That means inside linebackers hit the opposing quarterback 10 times without Dupree (1.11 per game) and 28 times with Bud Dupree (2.8 per game).

The Steelers averaged over 3 sacks a game in 2015 and 2016 when Bud Dupree played, and when he didn’t, they were worse than the 2014 defense at creating pressure.

But during all this production, Bud Dupree accounted for 9 sacks and 16 QB hits in 26 games played. In 2014 alone Jason Worilds accounted for 7.5 sacks and 22 QB hits.

It wasn’t Dupree out there getting sacks and pressures that made the Steelers defense better, it was Bud Dupree fitting Keith Butler’s system so well that everyone was eating.

The real confirmation came in the 2017 draft, when the Steelers took their 3rd linebacker in the first round in 4 years, and like Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt was an elite athlete but not a polished linebacker.


The Steelers pass rush dominates

The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers led the NFL in sacks with 56 (3.5 per game). The team had 7 players with at least 3 sacks, 5 QB hits and 4 tackles for a loss, including Mike Hilton and Vince Williams. Ryan Shazier wasn’t one of them. Shazier, playing the best football of his career, had no sacks, 2 QB hits and 3 tackles for a loss, less than Joe Haden in each category.

The Steelers were also on route to being a top 5 defense in both points and yards for the first time since 2011 before Shazier’s injury.

In 2018 the Steelers were without Shazier, falling to 16 in points and 6th in yards in the NFL, as T.J. Watt took off, recording 13 sacks and 21 QB hits, while Bud Dupree was 4th on the team with 5.5 sacks and 13 QB hits.

As the Steelers pass rush established itself as the best in the NFL, Bud Dupree was viewed as a bust, a player who wasn’t holding his own on a team full of pass rush talent. At 3.25 sacks per game, the Steelers in 2018 were only slightly ahead of the rate the Steelers sacked the quarterback in 2015 and 2016 when Bud Dupree was on the field and T.J. Watt was in college.

It was the 2019 season when Bud Dupree finally broke through and started producing sacks himself, recording 11.5 sacks to rank 2nd on the team behind Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt as the Steelers again led the NFL in sacks.

You may be wondering why I’m glossing over these years, and it is because from 2017 to 2019 Bud Dupree missed one game, the 2017 season opener when Deshone Kizer, in his first NFL game ran into pressure repeatedly, and the Steelers came away with 7 sacks, including 2 by Anthony Chickillo.


2020 reinforces Dupree’s value

It would take the 2020 Steelers season to give us another opportunity to get a good comparison of the Steelers defense with and without Bud Dupree. And man, would 2020 deliver an impressive argument for Dupree.

In 11 games with Bud Dupree the Steelers defense put up the following stats:

41 sacks (3.73 per game)
16 interceptions (1.45 per game)
23 total turnovers (2.09 per game)
7 games with less than 100 yards rushing allowed. (63.6% of games)
104 QB hits (9.45 per game)
76 tackles for a loss (6.91 per game)
71.5 passer rating against.
188 points allowed (17.09 per game)

In the six games without Bud Dupree:

15 sacks (2.5 per game)
2 interceptions (0.33 per game)
4 total turnovers (0.67 per game)
1 game with less than 100 yards rushing allowed. (16.7%)
33 QB hits (5.5 per game)
29 tackles for a loss (4.83 per game)
92.9 passer rating against.
172 points allowed (28.67 per game, 20.67 not counting the wild card game)

Consistently over Bud Dupree’s career the Steelers defense has been significantly better with Bud Dupree than it has been without him. Even without T.J. Watt the Steelers averaged 3 sacks a game, with James Harrison on the other side, but without Bud Dupree they average under 3 sacks a game, even with T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.

There is more you can go into, directional runs show Bud Dupree’s side of the defense is better at run defense than T.J. Watt’s side, and they switched sides in 2018. But Dupree isn’t as good a player as T.J. Watt is, and I really can’t see the Steelers bringing back Bud Dupree for another season with as good as Alex Highsmith looked this year, but Bud Dupree was a special player in this defense. It’s one of the best pass rushing defenses in the NFL when Bud Dupree plays, and it isn’t when he doesn’t.

Other players miss time, but no one correlates to the team getting after the quarterback like Bud Dupree does.

I don’t know where he will end up, or how much he will be paid, but I know that in Keith Butler’s defense, Bud Dupree was the perfect outside linebacker, and every part of the defense was better when he was on the field.

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