Kevin Gorman: Linebacker Bud Dupree’s prints on Steelers’ pass rush
Bud Dupree displayed his explosiveness with a fourth-quarter sack that left his imprint on Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Steelers left outside linebacker shed a chip block, bounced behind Stephon Tuitt and burst through the Baltimore line to level Flacco.
“I was like, ‘Dang, he hit Flacco pretty hard,’ ” Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “He came off the chip and right down the chute, like he (was shot) out of a gun or something.”
Dupree brings what Shazier calls “a bully mindset” to the Steelers defense, a 6-foot-4, 260-pounder who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds.
“Bud’s a huge component for our defense,” Shazier said. “He’s almost a bully out there. When you get that type of aspect back — telling guys what they’re going to do instead of letting guys do what they want — it really helps out our defense so much.”
Dupree has shown signs of dominance — the 2015 first-round pick has 10 1⁄2 sacks in 15 career starts — yet has battled injuries. No wonder his biggest goal is to stay healthy.
“I believe in myself. I know I can make a lot of plays. I know I can make a lot of splash plays. I feel like I’m nowhere near my ceiling,” Dupree said. “I’m going to keep grinding. I can do a lot of things because I’m so versatile and athletic. The coaches try to use me as much as they can, and it’s good to be a guy they count on to make plays.”
That’s the Catch-22 for Dupree and the Steelers defense. When healthy, he boosts not only the pass rush but the run defense.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler believes the Steelers’ pass rush will become better once they stop the run. That’s the challenge Sunday when the Jacksonville Jaguars visit Heinz Field.
What type of difference does Dupree make? When he starts, the Steelers are 15-5 over three seasons. When he doesn’t, they are 12-9. Those records include the loss at Chicago, where Dupree started but left with an injury.
Staying healthy is Dupree’s greatest challenge. Over his first three seasons, he has dealt with foot, groin, ankle and shoulder injuries, causing him to miss most of training camp and significant practice time.
“With all of the experience you get during training camp, that could help take my game to another level,” said Dupree, who missed the first nine games on the injured reserve last year but returned to help the Steelers go on a nine-game winning streak. “It’s very frustrating because there’s things you can’t control.”
After missing the opener at Cleveland with a sprained AC joint, Dupree has 10 tackles and two sacks this season. Butler believes Dupree has shown just the tip of his talents and wants him to also help stop the run and improve in pass coverage.
“He’s big and he’s strong and he’s fast and a very athletic guy. I look for him to play better than he has, though,” Butler said. “I think he can play better than he has. He’s got a sack here and there. He can get some pressure on the quarterback. If we can get him in situations where we know they’re going to throw the football, then he’ll be even better.”
Here’s the promising part: The Jacksonville game could represent the first time this season where the Steelers have all 11 starters on defense.
That includes six former first-rounders (end Cameron Heyward, linebackers Dupree, Shazier and T.J. Watt and cornerbacks Artie Burns and Joe Haden) and three second-rounders (Tuitt and safeties Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell).
“We’ve got to make sure something happens,” Dupree said.
Something like his Flacco sack.
“You could tell it was a big difference when Bud came back,” Shazier said. “It really helped our pass rush get better. When we have all guns blazing, it’s really hard to stop us from rushing the passer the way we want to. … It definitely showed last year and last game when he’s in the game.”
That’s obvious to everyone: You, me and Bud Dupree.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review sports columnist. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .