2023 NFL Pass Rush Study: Steelers Interior Defensive Line (2024)

Today I wanted to continue the series, studying NFL position groups and facets of the game. Next up is interior defensive line (IDL), looking at pass rush data from Sports Info Solutions (SIS).

The stats in this study are from the 2023 season, focusing on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The goal is to see how they stacked up against their peers across the NFL.

First, let’s look at pass snaps along with their total snaps to get a gauge of the player’s opportunities, and how often they were able to stay on the field for their squads last season:

This visual is a reminder of several Steelers lacking opportunities compared to the rest of the league in 2023. The exception was Larry Ogunjobi, landing comfortably above the mean in both data points. His 766 total snaps ranked 15th among the 138 qualifying IDL with a minimum of 200 total snaps, along with 444 pass snaps slotting in at a strong 21st as well.

Then, the rest of Pittsburgh’s IDL was below the mean. Keeanu Benton was second on the team in total snaps (483) and 256 pass snaps, tying for 70th and ranking 68th as he earned more opportunities throughout his rookie season.

Cameron Heyward’s 2023 was an injury-riddled one, limited to 11 games with 442 total snaps (82nd) and 259 pass snaps (T-65th). So, less total opportunities than Benton, but slightly more pass-rush opportunities.

A benefactor was Montravius Adams, who played much more in the first half of the 2023 season when Heyward was out. Adams had 416 total snaps (89th) and 236 pass snaps (77th), each being fourth most in Pittsburgh’s rotation in 2023.

These four players remain on the Steelers’ roster, and it will be interesting to see if they lead the team once again in the upcoming season.

After a substantial drop-off, IDL Armon Watts had 273 total snaps (120th) and 138 pass snaps (118th). He has since departed, signing with the New England Patriots.

The last qualifier was DeMarvin Leal, unfortunately for him becoming a healthy inactive at the end of 2023. This equated to 206 total snaps (135th) and 101 pass snaps (T-134th), each in the bottom five out of the 138 qualifiers.

Important quantity context to layer with their quality of play.

Next, let’s look at the percentages that the players rushed the passer (pass plays only), and Sports Info Solutions positive play rate: the rate of pass plays with the player on the field resulted in a positive EPA (lower percentages are best):

The majority of players at the position were in the 99th percentile, which comes as no surprise at the IDL position and includes every player for the black and gold.

Leading the focused group with a 41.0 positive play percentage was Watt’s (T-21st). Albeit a small sample size, he provided some quality play that Pittsburgh will need to replace in 2024. Watts also had a 99.3 rush rate, which tied for 64th.

Then, four Steelers had a 43.0 positive play rate that tied for an above-the-mean 36th. Heyward, Benton, and Leal each rushed the passer at 100 percent, while Ogunjobi had a 99.3 number that tied for 64th as well.

Adams had the worst 47.0 positive play rate of Steelers IDL as a pass rusher, which tied for 118th while rushing the passer 99.6 percent of the time (T-43rd). Pittsburgh was largely above the line as pass rushers, with Adams being the only one below it in positive play rate in 2023.

Here are essential numbers for the topic, pressure and sack percentages:

Here we see a lack of production from Pittsburgh’s room overall. Interestingly, Leal had the highest 1.1 sack rate that landed above the mean (T-41st). These numbers can be deceiving for players like him with low opportunities, coming on one sack in 2023. This was also true for his slightly below average 6.3 pressure rate (T-68th), with SIS charting him for six last year.

Benton and Watts tied for 49th in pressure rate (7.6), with the former being more impressive on significantly higher snaps. Benton provided 18 pressures, while Watts had ten, which was respectable in its own right.

They were both below the line in sack rates though at 0.4, tying for 90th (Benton – one, Watts 0.5). A clear issue we’ve brought up on Benton’s rookie year, and hopefully can cash in with sacks while remaining strong pressuring the QB in year two.

The remaining players were below the mean in both rates. Heyward was second on the team in sack rate (0.8), which tied for 63rd. This came on just two solo sacks, and his 3.8 pressure percentage was even worse (T-105th). Painful data that hurts to type for the defensive captain, but important to recall his 2023 injury agony.

Ogunjobi was slightly below the league mean in each, with a 6.3 pressure percentage, ironically tying with Leal at 41st, along with a 0.7 sack rate (T-73rd). Ogunjobi was charted for 26 pressures and three sacks in far more opportunities, and can hopefully become above average in each for the first time as a Steeler in 2024.

At the bottom once again was Adams. Zero sacks in 2023 was glaring, despite having a 5.8 pressure rate that landed closer to average (80th) out of the 138 qualifiers on 13 pressures. A battle at the end of the depth chart is inevitable this offseason, and his recent pass-rush resume isn’t doing him any favors.

Here is a more total view of the players as pass rushers:

  • Points Saved Per Rush – The total of a player’s EPA responsibility on pass plays using the Total Points system that distributes credit among all players on the field for a given play (with positive numbers being good). Totals are scaled up to map to the average points scored or allowed on a team level, with the player’s snap count determining how much to adjust. For pass rushers, this includes accounting for sacks, blown blocks forced, turnovers, turnover returns, and other disruptions at the line of scrimmage. Values are modulated using a quality-of-competition multiplier based on each opponent’s previous year of performance).
  • Points Above Average Per Play – using the same Total Points system and putting a number to their value above an average level player.

In this points view, Watts came out on top with a 45th rank in points saved per rush, along with tying for 32nd in points above average per play. Heyward and Ogunjobi landed virtually identical on the chart, the former 58th in points saved per rush to Ogunjobi’s 59th, and tying for 54th in points above average per play.

Next was Benton, who tied for 72nd in points saved per rush, with Leal close behind (T-77th), and the two tying with Heyward and Ogunjobi at 54th in points above average. With everything in the study, it is unsurprising that Adams landed on a lonely spot on the lower left, well below the NFL average: points saved per rush (125th), points above average per play (T-113th).

Overall, we can see that Pittsburgh’s pass rush from an IDL perspective was lacking in 2023. The best pass rush defenses tend to have a strong interior presence as well, and here’s to hoping the Steelers re-join that high standard once again this season.

To close, here is a table of the league-wide rankings:

Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

2023 NFL Pass Rush Study: Steelers Interior Defensive Line (2024)
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