Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3
The Pittsburgh Steelers will provide a litmus test for the Philadelphia Eagles.
They will test rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, whose terrific start has been marred (for some at least) only by the quality of the opponents that he has faced. They will test the Eagles defense, which hasn’t allowed more than 14 points in two games, something it took them 16 games to accomplish last year. And they will provide a litmus test for first year head coach Doug Pederson, who out-coached John Fox and Hue Jackson in consecutive weeks, but now has to go toe-to-toe with Super Bowl winning head coach, Mike Tomlin.
Here is a scouting report on the Steelers offense based on the numbers and tape. Check back on Saturday for a similar breakdown for the defense.
By The Numbers
Pittsburgh ranks 8th in total yards with 811 (or 405.5 per), according to ESPN.com. They are 12th in passing yards (540), 6th in rushing (271), and have scored the 4th most points in the league, behind only Carolina, San Diego and Oakland.
The Steelers offense is also very efficient, ranking 7th overall according to FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA efficiency metric. They are 6th in points per drive and 10th in Drive Success Rate (“DSR”), which, according to Football Outsiders, “measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown.” What’s more, Football Outsider’s DAVE ranking, which combines preseason predictions with a team’s performance to date, projects the Steelers to have the top rated offense in football for the entire season.
In other words, Todd Haley, Big Ben & Co. are picking up right where they left off last season, when they finished on a 6-2 run and were one of the hottest teams in football.
While the offense revolves around the passing attack, the Steelers are a highly productive run team, ranking 6th in the NFL in total rushing yards. Their primary run play is the famed Counter Trey, which was created by Tom Osborne during his heyday in Nebraska. Joe Gibbs is credited for bringing the Counter Trey (or Georgia Counter) to the NFL during his first stint in Washington, and Steelers offensive coordinator Tom Haley has been using it throughout his coaching career.
At its core, the Counter Trey involves a tight end and guard pulling from the backside to lead the way while the frontside lineman downblock to create an open lane.
The Steelers use subtle variations of this play to keep defenses honest. You’ll mainly see it run when they are in 12 personnel (two tight ends) and Big Ben under center; but they also run it out of the shotgun formation and will attack the backside of the line when the defense starts attacks the frontside of the line. Against the Redskins, I counted at least 6 variations of the Counter Trey, 2 of which went for touchdowns. In other words, the Redskins knew it was coming, but they just couldn’t stop it.
33-year old running back DeAngelo Williams has found the fountain of youth in Pittsburgh. While he’s not as talented as Le’Veon Bell — then again, who is? — Williams still leads the league in rushing through two games with 237 yards. Not bad for a backup.
Williams has carried a heavy work load through two weeks, toting the rock more than any other running back in the league. Williams is a capable pass catcher out of the backfield and still has enough juke left in the tank in both run and pass situations to make defenders miss. Watch Williams hit R1 on these defenders for a touchdown:
Big Ben to Antonio Brown
But make no mistake, the Steelers offense revolves around Big Ben and Antonio Brown, which for my money is the best QB/WR combo in the entire league.
Big Ben isn’t quite as elusive as he used to be, but he still has moments where he makes plays that only he can make. Against the Bengals, Big Ben turned in a vintage play, spinning and bobbing long enough to let Sammy Coates break free for a big gain down field.
But even though these plays are becoming less frequent with age, Big Ben has more than compensated for this by mastering the cerebral part of the game. He is a complete quarterback in the prime of his career. He is ball placement is precise, his understanding of the game advanced, and he has freedom within Todd Haley’s offense to attack the defense as he sees fit. He is light years ahead of Jay Cutler or RGIII as quarterbacks and is going to present the first true challenge for the Birds defense.
Brown needs no introduction. He is the best wide receiver in the NFL, and it’s not subject to debate. Over the last three seasons, Brown has caught an absurd 375 passes for 5,031 yards and 31 touchdowns.
In an age where wide receivers are bigger and faster than ever before, Brown is ordinary. He’s 5’10 and 181 lbs and ran a 4.47 40 time coming out during the draft. Despite these otherwise meh physical metrics, Brown is still practically unguardable. He is one of the best route runners in the league. His body control — especially mid-air — is matched only by Odell Beckham, Jr. And he catches everything thrown his way. He is particularly adept at getting open when Big Ben starts dancing in the backfield; the two have an intuitive, unspoken understanding of where the other is going before anyone else figures it out.
Big Ben fully trusts Brown and will throw to him even when he’s double covered. Against the Redskins, the Steelers were on 4th and 1 from the Redskins 30 yard line. The safe call is to kick a field goal. A conventional gamble on 4th and 1 would involve a run up the middle or a quick hitch/slant/curl route just pass the markers. Big Ben wasn’t having that:
Look at how open the underneath routes were — that’s as close to a guaranteed first down as you can get. Now look at how covered Brown was. At the moment the ball is released, Brown is a step behind his man and has a safety tracking him for the double team. Yet, Big Ben let’s it fly, and Brown’s impressive closing speed and freakish body control allows him to come down with a pass that 90% of receivers in this league would not have caught.
Brown ran a similar fade/go route at the 26 yard line for a touchdown later in this game. It seems to be a preferred route for Brown and Big Ben. So if you see the Steelers inside the 30 and Brown is single covered on the outside, don’t be surprised if they take this shot against the Eagles.
The only problem? Brown can just as easily cut the route short and catch a back shoulder fade for a big gain. That’s precisely what we did after his second touchdown catch, and gained about 25 yards.
Quick Passes Will Negate The Pass Rush
Watching the tape, Todd Haley has a good mix of vertical passing with 1-3 step drops designed to get the ball out of Big Ben’s hands quickly. You’ll see no huddle, package plays (with read and pass options), sail concepts (a three receiver combo route that typically includes a flat, corner, and go route), the triangle read (or snag), and the Hank Route (hitch routes across the board).
I am most concerned about the Steelers quick passing attack. Against the Redskins, Big Ben was routinely getting rid of the ball before the defense had any chance of getting pressure.
All game long, the Steelers were running quick slants, digs, and WR screens. And on the year, 64% of Big Ben’s passes have travelled less than 10 yards.
It’s no secret that the Eagles defense is predicated on pressuring the quarterback without having to blitz. Jim Schwartz has built his entire defensive philosophy off this simple idea. And through two games, their defense has been nothing short of sensational, ranking 2nd overall in FootballOutsiders’ DVOA efficiency ratings, behind only Seattle. They have allowed the 4th fewest yards in the league (572) and the second fewest points allowed (24).
But if Big Ben is getting rid of the ball after a one-step drop, the Eagles defensive line will be neutralized. That will take away the strength of the Eagles defense and put tremendous pressure on the Eagles already suspect secondary.
One way the Eagles can combat this quick passing game is to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, preventing them from getting a free release. Schwartz likes to mix in press man with zone coverage. So don’t be surprised to see the Eagles defenders getting close to the secondary to take away the quick passing routes.
How The Eagles Can Game Plan To Stop The Steelers
As I am writing this report, I am watching the New England Patriots systematically beat the Houston Texans despite starting their third string quarterback. Most people will focus on that (and rightfully so), but I am more impressed by Bill Belichick’s ability to consistently take away the one thing that his opponent does best on offense. For the Texans, that meant shutting down the deep passes to Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins. The Patriots gave help over the top and forced Brock Osweiller to check down and attack the middle of the field, and the offense never got any sort of rhythm.
If I am Jim Schwartz, I am taking a page out of Belichick’s playbook and double teamming Brown all damn game. Now, as we just saw, even a double team won’t completely shut Brown down. But I would force the Steelers beat us with Sammy Coates, Eli Rogers and Jesse James in the passing attack. I can live with that. If we leave our corners in single coverage against Brown all game, we are going to be toast.
The other thing the Eagles will need to do is force turnovers. Big Ben has a habit of doing two things that make him prone to turning the ball over: dancing around in the backfield trying to find time for his receivers to get open; and forcing the ball to Antonio Brown.
The Redskins missed out on multiple opportunities to create turnovers and turn the tide of the game against the Steelers. Big Ben lost, and then recovered, two fumbles. And the Redskins dropped two sure fire interceptions, one of which occurred when Big Ben tried to force the ball to Brown. The Eagles defense has been opportunistic so far this year, and they will need to capitalize on the opportunities this week if they are presented.
If they can contain Brown and cause a few turnovers, the Eagles will have a chance for the upset. But if they don’t, this could be one of those reality check games that we were all expecting to get eventually.