Pittsburgh comes at you with Bell, Roethlisberger and Brown
The Steelers’ defense is OK, but the offense is scary good
I am frustrated with the oversimplification of football analysis. As a cornerback, I am familiar with being blamed by media and fans for a deep pass caught on my side despite not being responsible for the deep zone. So this season, I will be watching the coaches’ video and analyzing the impact of all 22 players on the field and the coaches’ game plan.
Pittsburgh is one of the teams that most football fans and analysts believe is good enough to go all the way. But sometimes we are guilty of believing in the reputation of a franchise, not the current team. That could certainly be the case here, since the Steelers last won the Super Bowl in 2009. These 2016 Steelers are an entirely different team, which is not to say that this team isn’t good enough. The film is not swayed by reputation, so let’s see what it has to tell us.
Ring that Bell
The Steelers are a “do what we do” offense. They don’t do anything all that differently from week to week. But they are successful and feared by most coaching staffs in the league because they’ve built a very simple offense around three exceptional players: running back Le’Veon Bell, receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Conventional football thinking would have you believe that Roethlisberger is the most indispensable ingredient, but I am partial to Bell. His combination of patience, vision and acceleration as a ball carrier gives him the ability to gain four or five yards when most backs would be lucky to get back to the line of scrimmage. It might not sound like much, but those plays can have an enormous impact on a game. They can mean the difference between facing third-and-10 or a more manageable third-and-5, and keeping the drive going, which leads to points or at least better field position for the defense. Combine those skills with his speed and hands, and you have a player who is Hall of Fame good and the true centerpiece to this offense.
The bread and butter of the Steelers’ passing game is to attack linebackers, on early downs, with high-low route combinations. A high-low is exactly what it sounds like. A receiver or tight end runs a 12-to-15-yard in route behind the linebacker (high) and another player runs a 3- to 5-yard route in front of the same linebacker (low). Depending on the coverage, there may not always be a linebacker there to bracket, but against Cover 2 and Cover 3, which are popular first- and second-down coverages, at least two of the linebackers have hook zone responsibilities. When that is the case, Roethlisberger has an easy read. Early in most games, the backers play the coverage properly and get depth, forcing Roethlisberger to throw to the shorter route, which is often Bell. The play rarely ends there with a routine tackle: As you might imagine, Bell catching the ball with room is difficult to tackle. Bell regularly gains a few extra yards after the catch, and sometimes enough for a first down. After a few of those, the linebackers begin to get less depth in order to tackle Bell before he gets going. Roethlisberger sees this and passes to the “high” player for a 10- to 15-yard gain and a first down.
The High-Low creates havoc for defenses
Theoretically, Cover 1 or Cover 4 would be better options. Cover 1 is man-to-man, so there should be a defender close to Bell, denying the low route and a defender covering the high route. But, then you have to count on a linebacker to stay with the shifty Bell’s route. Oh, yeah, and your cornerback is in man coverage against Brown, with Roethlisberger, a quarterback who extends plays, with the ball in his hand. Cover 4 should take care of Brown, but makes the defense weaker against the run. And puts pressure on linebackers to cover both the curl and flat zones.
The Steelers line up in various formations, and use different players to run the highs and lows to keep the opponent guessing, but the key concept doesn’t change that much. It’s simple, but it creates havoc for defenses. There are only a couple of schematic things that I think would stop the Steelers’ high-low. And all of them would require removing a D-lineman from rushing the quarterback and putting an extra man in coverage. But that would require the defensive coordinator to guess right, because if he calls one of those coverages against a running play, the Steelers would punish the lighter front. The only real way to stop them is with a few exceptional players on the opposing defense. On Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals defenders played well in the red zone, holding the Steelers to 20 percent efficiency. But the Steelers also stopped themselves, with three drive-killing penalties.
Is Timmons defensive MVP?
As for the Steelers’ defense, Lawrence Timmons was incredible. He did it all. He made some unbelievable tackles in short-yardage situations, intercepted a poorly thrown pass from Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, and shed a blocker to hit Dalton on a key late-game third down. Timmons was impressive from start to finish, but it took the rest of the defense until the second half to play well against an A.J. Green-less Bengals team.
The coaches didn’t make many strategic adjustments at halftime. The only difference I noticed was a Tampa 2-hole spy. Rather than blitz on third downs, as they did for much of the first half, on a few second-half third downs, the Steelers played Cover 2 with a linebacker going to the deep middle (Tampa), another linebacker reading the quarterback’s eyes from a low zone (hole), and a third linebacker waiting to tackle the quarterback, if he scrambles (spy). The Steelers only rushed three, when they ran this defense, in order to still cover all the zones. Ironically, I would have liked to have seen how the Steelers’ offense would have fared against this defense.
It’s not just reputation. The Steelers’ defense is OK, but the offense is scary good. I could see them dominating time of possession and converting in the red zone once in the playoffs. This season, they have as good a chance as any team, provided they get into the playoffs.