Steelers’ Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt comfortable with switching sides
The defense’s performance in a 45-42 divisional playoff loss wasn’t what planted the seed for the Steelers to switch outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.
The plan was hatched much earlier, defensive coordinator Keith Butler admitted Wednesday.
Butler said the Steelers delayed implementing it until the spring for fear of disrupting the flow of the season.
“We had a rookie and another guy who hadn’t been in the league very long,” Butler said. “We didn’t think it was a good idea halfway through the season to switch them because we weren’t being unsuccessful in terms of winning games.”
A 13-3 record earned the Steelers a division title and a first-round playoff bye, but many defensive flaws were exposed in that home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Although difficulty stopping the run was high atop the list, the Steelers also were ineffective rushing the passer. A unit that led the NFL with a franchise-record 56 sacks during the regular season failed to bring down Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles, in fact, was pressured just four times.
When organized team activities began in May, Watt found himself stationed on the left side of the defensive front after starting as a rookie on the right side. Conversely, Dupree moved to the right side after playing much of his first three seasons on the left.
Watt and Dupree remained at their new spots through the duration of the three-week OTA sessions and have lined up there again this week during minicamp. Will it continue into training camp and the regular season?
“Everything right now is a work in progress,” outside linebackers coach Joey Porter said Wednesday. “Anything can change. Right now, (Dupree) is on the right side.”
Steelers coaches believe Dupree will be more effective rushing while coming at the quarterback’s blind side.
“Bud had rushes where he beat his guy, but the quarterback stepped up, flushed out or went the other way and got away,” Porter said. “He had a lot of rushes where he beat his guy but didn’t get the sack.”
Dupree, starting in his first full NFL season, had a career-high six sacks. He estimates he missed on four more because quarterbacks saw him coming and sidestepped his pursuit.
“It gives us a different matchup,” Dupree said. “It’s going to be fun. I’m more comfortable on this side. I’m excited to see what happens.”
Dupree said he and Watt learned they would be switching sides when they reported for offseason workouts in April.
“Bud was up for the change,” Porter said.
So was Watt, who had seven sacks in his rookie season.
“You’re more natural on one side or the other, and I think I’m more natural on the left side just because I’m more right-hand dominant,” Watt said. “I can have a better dip and a better stab. I have more pitches I can throw on the left side, and I can help out more in the run defense.”
Watt said he played both outside positions at Wisconsin, but he wasn’t about to balk when the Steelers put him on the right side in training camp last season ahead of franchise career sacks leader James Harrison.
“When I came in, I just wanted to play anywhere,” Watt said. “Just to get the opportunity on the right side, I wasn’t going to say, ‘No, I want to play on the left only.’ ”
In the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme, the outside linebackers also are asked to drop in coverage and be run stoppers. Watt broke up seven passes last season and thinks those numbers can improve now that he will be facing the quarterback while trying to hold containment.
“I definitely am always conscious of the quarterback and his throwing motion,” Watt said. “I’m aware of where the ball is thrown, and I’m presented more opportunities to bat the ball down when I’m on the left side. Even in this (offseason camp), I’ve been able to knock down more passes than usual.”
The Steelers hope the switch is just as beneficial for Dupree.
“What Bud did too much of last year, in my opinion, was he got past the quarterback,” Butler said. “To me, you’re useless when you’re past the quarterback and trying to rush the quarterback. Now, he won’t be as useless behind the quarterback because he can work back a little bit or he can go up and under where the quarterback won’t see him.
“I think that’s the way it is going to help us.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.