Steelers close to team mark for sacks in a season

This Dec. 17, 2017, file photo shows New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, in an NFL football game, in Pittsburgh. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Improved coverage in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary has allowed the defense an opportunity to make team history.

The Steelers have 50 sacks, which is five from the franchise record entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against Cleveland.

“If you can get them to hold the ball a little bit and make them second-guess themselves by changing up the coverages and blitzes, then that really helps us,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said.

The Steelers have four defenders with at least five sacks each this season. The list includes Cam Heyward, Vince Williams, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt.

That production has helped the Steelers rank second in sacks, fourth in yards allowed and fifth in points even without much from linebacker James Harrison, who is in New England after getting cut last week.

Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was active for just five of Pittsburgh’s 14 games and played only 40 snaps despite being injury-free. The 39-year-old Harrison is the franchise’s leader in sacks, piling up 80½ during his 14 seasons with the Steelers and 82½ in his career.

The Steelers have continued Harrison’s legacy and have a chance to break the franchise mark for sacks in a season on Sunday.

“We’re ready to just go out and do it,” Dupree said. “We want to be able to say we’re the group that broke the franchise record. We want to take a picture after the game and say that we’re the best to ever do it. It’s a lot of fun when you can do something like that.”

Heyward leads the way, as his team-best 12 sacks are tied for fifth in the NFL and tied for second-most by a Steeler defensive lineman in a single season since 1982.

“That’s unusual for a defensive tackle to have 12 sacks,” Butler said. “How he’s passed up for the Pro Bowl, I don’t know.”

Watt, the younger brother of three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt, ranks second among rookies with six sacks this season. He became the first player in league history to record at least two sacks and an interception during his NFL debut against the Browns in Week 1.

Cornerback Mike Hilton got into the action last week against Houston with a single-game career-high three sacks. Dupree is also enjoying a career season with a personal-best six sacks.

“The defense we run, we drop back a lot, but having the chance to rush the passer is fun,” Dupree said.

The secondary has helped the Steelers reach this point.

Pittsburgh is ranked No. 5 against the pass, two seasons removed from finishing 30th in passing defense. Cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis — the Steelers’ first and second-round picks in 2016 — join veteran Mike Mitchell. The Steelers solidified their back end when they signed former Browns standout cornerback Joe Haden, a two-time Pro Bowler, before the start of the regular season.

“I’m just happy we got him,” Butler said. “He came available for us and man, what a stroke of fortune that we got him.”

Pittsburgh ranked among the top three teams in the league in sacks the previous three times it advanced to the Super Bowl.

The Steelers, second in the league with 50 sacks, have ranked in the top 10 in the league the past three seasons. The Steelers had just 33 sacks — 26th in the league in 2014.

Butler said the team has brought multiple pass rushers — and different blitzers — more often this season.

“You don’t know which four (players) are coming,” Butler said. “All those guys are talented enough to rush the quarterback and we’re fortunate enough that they do a good job for us.”

It hasn’t been one particular player or position group that does the most damage either.

“Everybody has been part of it,” Butler said. “It has been spread around and that’s what we want. We don’t want to be predictable in terms of how we’re trying to put pressure on the quarterback. We want to make them figure it out when it’s too late.”

NOTES: Center Maurkice Pouncey (hip) and WR Antonio Brown (calf) missed practice on Thursday. Heyward, QB Ben Roethlisberger and RB Le’Veon Bell were limited, but it wasn’t injury related.