Scouting The Steelers Defense

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

Carson Wentz has exceeded all reasonable expectations with his play to date. He is the first rookie quarterback since the merger to go 2-0 without any turnovers. He is PFF’s top rated quarterback. And his 94.1 quarterback rating is better than Cam Newton (92.7), Joe Flacco (84.3), Aaron Rodgers (82.6), and Russell Wilson (80.7). Given the drops and clock killing for an entire quarter against the Bears, it’s reasonable to assume his numbers could be even better.

Of course, it’s only been two games — against the Browns and Bears, no less — so it would be ridiculous to suggest he is as good as those quarterbacks. The Steelers represent his first real challenge of the season; they will provide the Eagles organization and its fans a good barometer for judging just how talented the rookie signal caller is.

So how will Wentz (and the Birds) fair against the Steelers? Let’s dive deep into the tape and numbers to get a better understanding. If you missed my scouting report on the Steelers offense, you can check it out here.

By The Numbers 

The Steelers rank a pedestrian 21st in total yards allowed, primarily because they have given up the second most passing yards in the league (695), behind only the Oakland Raiders. But their rush defense ranks second in the league, allowing only 101 yards over two games. A term you will hear a lot with the Steelers D is “bend, but not break,” and the numbers bear this out. Even though they give up a ton of yards, the Steelers are tied 8th with the New York Giants in points allowed, giving up on average 16 points per game.

From an efficiency standpoint, the Steelers defense ranks 14th according to FootballOutsiders’ DVOA rankings, 6th against the run and 14th against the pass.

Football Outsiders has a great metric that lets you measure how a defense has done in pass defense compared to the league average. Here is how the Steelers stack up:

Pos

Yards Allowed

League Avg YA

WR1

103.0

83.2

WR2

49.5

50.5

Other WR

87.5

51.9

TE

64

54

RB

81.5

43.0

Not surprisingly, the Steelers are worse than league average against receivers almost across the board. Matthews, Burton and Sproles seem to have the most favorable matchups given the Steelers tendencies to give up the underneath passes. Get them in your lineups, fantasy owners.

The Base

For what seems like an eternity, the Steelers have run a two gap, 3-4 defense that relied heavily on zone blitzes. Things have changed under second year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who — at least this season — has been employing more of a 2-4-5 front, eschewing the Blitzburgh defensive philosophy in favor of dropping more players in coverage.

Carson Wentz has been phenomenal diagnosing defenses at the line and throwing under pressure. The Steelers present a different type of challenge, as they are known for their complex zone coverages. And while they don’t blitz as often as they used to, they still do a good job switching up which players they send on the rush. Wentz is going to be tested in this game.

Stout Against Run

One thing that hasn’t changed for the Steelers is the emphasis to shut down the run and make opposing teams one dimensional. The Steelers are relentless in pursuit, closing running lanes before a play has a chance to get started.

Cameron Heyward is a big reason for their run success. While the box score won’t reflect it, he was virtually unstoppable against the Redskins, routinely getting into the backfield to disrupt the run. On this play, Heyward doesn’t get a tackle, but watch how quickly he explodes through the line, forcing a holding penalty that negated a nice gain.

Jason Kelce’s struggles are well documented. He’s been dreadful through two weeks, and this comes on the heels of a disappointing 2015 campaign. Heyward will likely give Kelce problems this week, as he often lines up between the guard and center. Kelce must improve, or the Eagles are going to have a hard time getting the run game going.

Giving Up The Underneath Passes

Against both the Bengals and Redskins, the Steelers routinely dropped 7-8 men into coverage, selling out to shut down the big play. With that, the underneath routes were open all damn game.

Cousins obliged, drinking and dunking his way down the field while completing 69% of his passes for 329 yards. But Cousins’ production failed to translate to touchdowns, as their first three possessions inside the red zone yielded only 9 points.

The Steelers deserve some credit for this, as their defense has been very good inside their own 20. But Cousins left some plays on the field as well:

While I won’t quibble with Cousins decision to go with Reed — he had a clear step on his man — Cousins threw behind him, leading to the incompletion. But Cousins had two better options on this play, a wide open receiver on the underneath crossing route and DeSean Jackson with a clear step on his man on a fade route into the end zone. This was one of several plays that Cousins missed in the redzone, and before they knew it the Redskins were down 24-9.

Andy Dalton was more aggressive, attacking the Steelers up the seams with vertical passing concepts. It didn’t work; the Steelers defense suffocated any chance of the deep pass by creating impossibly tight windows to attack. The Bengals offense didn’t get any semblance of consistency until Dalton started to take the underneath routes, but by then it was too late.

Like the Redskins, the Bengals also struggled in the red zone, getting field goals on their first three possessions inside the 20. Like Cousins, Dalton left some plays on the field, missing at least two opportunities to score touchdowns. On one, Dalton had tight end Tyler Kroft breaking wide open across the back of the end zone. But Dalton’s throw led Kroft too far out of bounds, and the Bengals settled for three.

Earlier in the game, the Bengals were set up inside the Steelers 10 yard line. Dalton had a receiver wide open on an out route out of the slot, but he skipped the ball into the ground. The Bengals settled for another field goal.

That’s one of the most encouraging things I picked up from the tape. While the Steelers have been good at preventing touchdowns, some of that was based on their opponents own errors. In other words, the opportunities are there for Wentz and company to make plays.

The Eagles have their own problems scoring touchdowns, with bad drops from Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor costing the Eagles at least 14 points against the Bears last week. The game was never close enough for it to matter, but the margin for error will be significantly smaller against the Steelers. If the Eagles are trading field goals for touchdowns, they won’t have a chance. So Wentz and his receivers must capitalize when the opportunities present themselves.

Ryan Shazier

We can’t do a report on the Steelers D without talking about Ryan Shazier, who is playing like an All Pro linebacker through two games. He was making plays at every level and every facet of the game. Shazier has always been talented, he just couldn’t stay healthy. But so far, he looks like a complete linebacker, possessing a rare combination of size, speed and intelligence. Watch how much ground Shazier covers on this play before forcing the fumble:

Shazier is the quarterback of the Steelers defense, setting the plays and making any necessary adjustments. The chess match between Shazier and Wentz is going to be fun to watch. Wentz needs to know where he is at all times because Shazier has shown that he can make plays in the passing game as well:

The Keys To The Game & Prediction

I see three keys to this game: first, Wentz must be patient and take what the defense gives him. He’s not shy about attacking defenses deep, but those opportunities are going to be harder to come by against the Steelers. Wentz must avoid trying to force things and attack the Steelers through the short passing game.

Second, the Eagles must capitalize inside the red zone. The Steelers offense is likely going to score in bunches, so the Eagles cannot afford to trade field goals for touchdowns. Matthews, Agholor, et al., are going to need to hang onto the ball. They cannot afford costly drops.

Finally, how is Wentz going to handle the Steelers exotic zone defenses? They are notoriously complex, confusing even the most seasoned veteran quarterbacks. Wentz has impressed with his command and confidence, but this defense presents a different challenge. If Wentz rises to the challenge, the hype surrounding Wentz is only going to get louder.

Before breaking down the tape, I intuitively assumed that the Eagles were going to lose this game. Now I’m not so sure. While the odds still favor the Steelers, the Eagles have a chance to surprise some people.

Vegas seems to agree. The line started at Pittsburgh -5.5, but has dropped to -3 in the last 48 hours despite over 70% of the public taking the Steelers. That tells us big money is going on the Eagles late, an encouraging sign that they might have a better chance then many believe.

I really want to pick the Birds. But I have a hard time choosing them over Big Ben and Antonio Brown right now. I think the Eagles cover, but the Steelers win 23-21.

Season Record: 2-0

 

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