The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has taken major steps over the past few weeks. Now, coming out of at their bye week, they are tied for second place in the AFC North, 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Baltimore Ravens.
It is a stretch to call for the Steelers to make the playoffs given their circumstances, but they have to be thinking that they are still alive sitting at 2-4. The defense is seeing young names such as T.J. Watt, Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick step up as leaders of the team, and with that, they should only ascend throughout the year.
However, the offense has obviously left a lot to be desired. The passing game struggles are no surprise, given the amount of shuffling at quarterback. However, this meant that the Steelers needed to rely on a ground attack to protect their inexperienced passers. With an elite offensive line and a Pro Bowler such as James Conner, the group should have been able to help pick up the slack.
However, the Steelers currently rank 28th as a team in rushing yards per game and 27th in yards per carry. James Conner has averaged 3.2 yards per attempt this season, a far cry from his 4.5 yards per attempt through two years. For a team that is not getting Ben Roethlisberger back this season, they will have no chance competing if they cannot get more going on the ground.
Is it the play calling, the lack of a quarterback, the offensive line or James Conner? What can the Steelers attempt to fix to get the run game going?
The first question obviously comes down to the quarterback shift. It is clear that quarterback play has limited JuJu Smith-Schuster, is the lack of respect in the deep ball hurting the chances of Conner. On the contrary, actually. Conner has faced an 8-man box just 16.22% of his rushes this season. That number is down significantly from 27.91% last season. Last season he saw 7.1 defenders in the box on each attempt, while that number is only 7 in the box this year.
Despite fewer players in the box, the Steelers are not making defenses pay. Power success and stuffed rank can help tell a story of how well the offensive line has played. When a back gets into the open field, it is on them. However, power success measures the number of third and fourth down situations with less than two yards to go a running back converted. Stuffed rank is the number of runs that go for one yard or less. The Steelers ranked fifth in these two categories in 2018. They rank 26th and 30th respectively this year.
This is not a good look for the Steelers offensive line, which has not been able to generate a strong push-up front. However, this can come down to a few issues as well. To start, Conner has not been as quick to hit the holes when they are there. Last season he had a 3.64 efficiency rating, which tracks steps taken per yards gained. A lower number means a north-south runner. This year his rating is up to 4.73.
This means the line has to hold their ground longer. That does not help when they are trying to convert in these short-yardage situations.
On top of that, the team has seen a drop off in second-level yards, and open field runs. That was never a strength of Conner as he ranked 20th, and 19th in those areas respectively. The Steelers rank 29th and 27th this year, though.
Second-level runs go for 5-10 yards while open field runs are 10 yards or more. Conner is not getting into the second level at nearly the same rate. This is hard not to pin on Conner. Last season he had 23.2 yards created per game. That is the number of yards he picked up after making a defender miss. This year that number is down to 12.7. On a per-carry basis, he creating 0.5 fewer yards per carry after first contact.
He averaged 4.6 missed tackles per game last year, which is down to 3.8 this year. Conner has not been efficient in making defenders miss. He has been reliant on what the line gives him, which is less than a year before.
However, the play calling can take a little blame in this area as well. The Steelers have tried to get Conner outside of the tackle box. The spread nature of their running game has helped in keeping less defenders in the box. However, they have not been successful running outside of the tackles this season. Plays like the one below have been seen too often. This is a trifecta of issues. The offensive line looks out of whack pulling to the outside, the play call forces Conner to the weak side of the field and he stutters around which adds to his worse efficiency rating this season.
When running off of the right tackle Conner has a 36% success rate. Conner does have a 50% success rate running behind the center, which has been the most efficient method of rushing. The team has spread out their attempts, but may want to run less outside, as Conner has not been decisive, and the line has not been dominant.
However, Conner also has only a 21% success rate when the quarterback is not in shotgun compared to 48% in shotgun.
PASSING GAME VALUE
When the Steelers run with Conner they should spread teams out, and then run him up the middle out of the shotgun. Where the Steelers want to get Conner outside of the tackles is in the passing game.
Conner is on pace for 69 receptions for 616 yards, both would be career highs. He already set his career-high in receiving touchdowns last Monday and has only one incompletion on targets this season. When adding in his receiving value, Conner has averaged over 4.6 yards per touch and has gone over 100 combined yards twice.
The Wildcat has helped him get quick passes, get him to the edges, and help boost his stats. We know that the team cannot back to that look again, though, it is too easy to solve.
However, looking at his receiving value against the Chargers and you can see that they had a lot of success getting him in open space outside of the tackles. All of a sudden, he was looking like the Conner of old.
Getting quarterback consistency will help Conner get back into the swing of things immensely. However, there are things that can be touched upon all levels.
Conner will need to work on making multiple defenders miss, and picking up more yards when he gets into open space. He also will need to be more decisive running downhill.
The offensive line can help in this area. However, they need to improve when it comes to running outside of the tackles. Rosevelt Nix is a chess piece who can pull and lead rushing attacks outside the tackles, and Vance McDonald is an underrated athlete as a pulling blocker as well. Getting these two in the mix can help, but the team needs to call more shotgun runs up the middle.
On top of that, getting Conner more work in the receiving game stretches the defense thin, and keeps teams from crowding the box, which will be needed as the team rides a backup quarterback home. Not all is lost for the Steelers rushing attack, but the team needs help in all phases from the play calling, to the line, and Conner.
What to Expect from Diontae Johnson in Year 2
You may not know it with the amount of hype heaped upon rookie receivers like Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin, but in 2019, it was Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson that lead the league in receptions among first-year players. In 12 starts, Johnson had 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns. That was good enough for first, sixth and seventh respectively among his rookie class.
So what’s in store in year two? In addition to a year of pro strength training and all the other things that come from being part of a NFL organization, Johnson will have a full year of catching passes from a 17-year vet Ben Roethlisberger, a mild upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to say the least.
How has an entire season with Roethlisberger worked out for previous Steelers receivers in their sophomore campaigns? Let’s take a look back starting with the rookies he played with and how they improved in their second year.
Nate Washington (2005): 0 targets / 0 receptions / 0 yards / 0 touchdowns / 0 catch % / 0 yards per target
Nate Washington (2006): 69 / 35 / 624 / 4 / 50.7% / 9.04
Washington didn’t have a single catch his rookie year, but was a solid contributor in his sophomore campaign, which was Ben’s third year on the job.
Santonio Holmes (2006): 86/ 49 / 824 / 2 / 57% / 9.58
Santonio Holmes (2007): 85 / 52 / 942 / 8 / 61.2% / 11.08
As a rookie, Holmes had a very productive season. But he improved across the board, especially in touchdowns and yards per target, in his second season.
Mike Wallace (2009): 72 / 39 / 756 / 6 / 54.2% / 10.50
Mike Wallace (2010): 98 / 60 / 1257 / 10 / 61.2% / 12.83
Wallace saw a big increase in receptions (54%) and receiving yards (66%) compared to his rookie season as he became one of the premier deep threats in the NFL.
Emmanuel Sanders (2010): 43 / 28 / 376 / 2 / 56.0% / 7.52
Emmanuel Sanders (2011): 50 / 22 / 288 / 2 / 51.2% / 6.70
Sanders was one of the few players whose production dipped in year two, mostly as a result of the incredible rise of his fellow 2010 draft pick Antonio Brown.
Antonio Brown (2010): 19 / 16 / 167 / 0 / 84.2% / 8.79
Antonio Brown (2011): 124 / 69 / 1108 / 2 / 55.6% / 8.94
After an inauspicious start to his career, Brown exploded in his second season with the Steelers putting up three times the catches and five times to yardage compared to his rookie season.
Martavis Bryant (2013): 48 / 26 / 549 / 8 / 54.2% / 11.44
Martavis Bryant (2014): 92 / 50 / 765 / 6 / 54.3% / 8.32
Bryant nearly doubled his reception total after an incredible rookie campaign that saw him catch touchdowns on more than a quarter of his catches in year two. But Bryant proved that his rookie campaign wasn’t a fluke with a solid 50 receptions for 765 yards.
Markus Wheaton (2013): 13 / 6 / 64 / 0 / 46.2% / 4.92
Markus Wheaton (2014): 86 / 53 / 644 / 2 / 61.6% / 7.49
Wheaton looked like he was on his way to being the next Steelers mid-round receiver find after a nice year two. Unfortunately his 2014 sophomore season turned out to be the high point of his career.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017): 79 / 58 / 917 / 7 / 73.4% / 11.6
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2018): 166 / 111 / 1426 / 7 / 66.9% / 8.59
Smith-Schuster certainly showed flashes in his rookie season opposite full-fledged superstar Antonio Brown, but it was nothing compared to what he’d do in year two. With Brown drawing the top corners, Smith-Schuster was virtually unstoppable posting career highs in catches and yardage.
James Washington (2018): 38 / 16 / 217 / 1 / 42.1% / 5.71
James Washington (2019): 80 / 44 / 735 / 3 / 55.0% / 9.19
Washington did not live up to his second round pick status in year one with a paltry 16 catches for 217 yards playing with Roethlisberger. But in year two, even with Roethlisberger on the shelf for most of the season, Washington showed the flashes that made him such a threat in college. His ability to make combat catches was on full display as he more than tripled his receiving yards and posted a huge increase in catches, catch percentage and yards per target.
Diontae Johnson (2019): 92 / 59 / 680 / 5 / 64.1% / 7.39
Johnson really began to excel towards the end of his 2019 season as he gained a report with Rudolph and Hodges. And it wasn’t just on short passes, in the last four weeks of the season, Johnson was the Steelers best down the field option as well. A deft route runner, Johnson was tops in the entire league in target separation, which measures the average yards of separation between the receiver and cornerback at the time of the catch. The Toledo product also finished 24th in the NFL in yards after catch and was 3rd in forced missed tackles among receivers. Perhaps even more encouraging was the amount of targets Johnson had as a rookie. The 92 were most since Ben Roethlisberger became quarterback and second most in Steelers history.
So what will Johnson do in year two? His rookie numbers were most comparable to Santonio Holmes who was the Steelers’ clear number two receiver behind Hines Ward in his second year. Johnson’s numbers will get a boost from being the likely number two receiver–and the increase in targets that accompanies it–when the season opens opposite a presumably healthy Smith-Schuster. Although it’s worth noting that with the recent acquisition of tight end Eric Ebron, a healthy Vance McDonald and a deep, if inexperienced, receiving corps, there’s going to be a lot of competition for targets.
Despite that it’s probably safe to say that with Roethlisberger coming back and the offense more geared towards the passing game, Johnson’s numbers will see a moderate increase from his impressive rookie season.
Johnson’s individual metrics; his impressive separation on catches and his ability to break tackles all indicate that Johnson should continue to progress in 2020. and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him eclipse 75 catches and 1,000 yards in year two.
Safety Options Abound for Steelers in Draft
After a whirlwind week of free agency, it appears that the safety is becoming a far bigger need for the Steelers than anyone expected back in January.
The Steelers depth had always appeared to be sketchy, but it seemed likely a veteran free agent would be signed to shore up needs. Except, thus far, that has not happened. The Steelers retained Jordan Dangerfield and lost Sean Davis to free agency, leaving at least one spot in the secondary wide open heading into the draft.
The Steelers will almost certainly draft a safety, and they might go safety in the second round. It might even be possible that one of those very good safeties just so happens to fall down to the Steelers pick at 49.
There are players to take in each round that would at least be quality depth. We will only find out on draft day who the Steelers choose to pick, but here are SteelersNow’s top ten safeties in the 2020 NFL Draft.
10. Alohi Gilman, Notre Dame
Gilman is a lot of fun. His athleticism is lacking in some areas, especially his flexibility. Gilman is pretty tight-hipped and should not be playing as a deep safety in the NFL, but that is fine. He plays with his hair on fire and does a great job to read and react to routes and things going down in the box on the second level of the field.
Gilman will play as a box safety or dimebacker at the next level simply because of how good he is at avoiding traffic and playing downhill. He gives a team an impact run defender and tenacious player. Far more limited than a lot of players in this class, GIlman will have to be put into the right position to succeed. He lacks some ball skills, but still, Gilman is a solid chess piece.
9. Brandon Jones, Texas
Jones is another guy who will be a strong safety at the next level. His tackling is super reliable and he rarely misses on tape. He will not miss the chance to lay the boom down if he can and he can absolutely fly downhill too. Jones has impressive closing speed and is a great straight-line athlete. He does not have very smooth feet and will not flip his hips well, but he is physical and can man-up tight ends if needed. I like his instincts as well and he can make some plays undercutting routes. The issue is he is simply stuck in the box and that will depreciate his value.
8. Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne
A Division II guy that masqueraded as a single-high on tape because he was the most athletic guy out there. but really is more of a safety and linebacker hybrid. Like both mentioned above him, Dugger is going to be stuck as a box safety at the next level. He is a guy who has incredible length and is quite fluid for his size, so he can fall back in a Cover 2 scheme if need be, but he is at his best when he is reading and reacting and flying downhill. His ball skills are natural with great leaping ability and ball tracking ability. Dugger tracks the ball and high points with ease and good hands. He will be able to man guys up if he can improve his hip discipline and hand usage. He is just an incredibly raw prospect and the issue is he is already 24. There is upside here, but he is not a can’t miss prospect by any means.
7. K’Von Wallace, Clemson
Wallace is a really good football player. He knows how to key in on runs based off the offensive lineman and reads possible route combinations right off the jump. Once he is sure of what he sees, he absolutely flies to make the play. For the most part, he is a pretty good tackler too. The difference with Wallace and the others mentioned, though, is that he can be moved all over the field. He can be trusted in the box, manning up receivers, and he can be a blitzer from the box, too. Wallace is a playmaker. and would have more interceptions if he did not have spotty hands. There is a lot he can and was asked to do at Clemson. Wallace is just a rock-solid player that adds a lot of value to his game. He’s very smooth and a high energy player out there.
6. Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois
For a guy ranked sixth at his position, Chinn is a fantastic player who should be a really good football at the next level. Chinn has very good athleticism and in a lot of ways is similar to Isaiah Simmons. He will not drop back into a single-high role at all, but Chinn can fly and make impressive plays down near the line. This dude is a firecracker and will lay the boom with ferocity. His instincts and football IQ is pretty raw in general, However, he is a great tackler and has extremely good ball skills. Chinn can be a deep safety in a Cover 2 scheme due to his range, fluid hips, and ball skills. He plays better down in the box as a downhill guy, however. That is likely where he will thrive as a playmaker in the NFL and a solid player.
5. Grant Delpit, LSU
Delpit did not have a great 2019 season. Marred with missed tackles and gaffes in man coverage, Delpit fell down the board swiftly due to showing all those warts. However, he gets more flak than he deserves from a lot of people. He is still an extremely athletic safety with high football IQ. On top of that, the guy is an absolute ballhawk in the middle of the field and deep. He works so well on that back end of the defense with his range, instincts, and fluidity. If he were a good tackler and could man those guys up, Delpit would be a slam dunk for the top safety. He can still be a dynamic safety who will make a big difference at the next level regardless, but he just is not a perfect safety. Make no mistake, the guy is a Top-50 player in the draft no questions asked.
4. Terrell Burgess, Utah
Burgess is a hybrid cross between a safety and nickel cornerback. As a third safety, he fits in so well. He is sticky in man coverage and has elite awareness in the deep half of the field. His zone coverage instincts are really impressive when you watch how he reads the quarterback. Burgess will fly downhill and has really good closing speed and burst. This is not just a head smart player, but an athletic one at that too. Give him a man coverage responsibility and Burgess delivers. He has great fluidity and discipline to just mirror guys. Burgess is a pretty sure tackler as well. The big question marks will be is can he translate his playmaker traits into ball production and will his lack of length hurt him more in the NFL than it did in college. Those will have to be questions he answers, but he is a solid prospect.
3. Ashtyn Davis, Cal
Davis is a legitimate track star athlete and as such, has really solid range. The guy plays at a million miles per hour and is walking missile on the football field. He has laid guys out with big, legal hits on the field. Add all that in with ball skills and Davis is a really fun prospect to watch play on tape. He was reading Justin Herbert like a book when they played and made numerous plays from that single-high alignment. Davis can also walk down and man guys up from the slot too. His instincts are rather good as well. He could be a more consistent form tackler, but with the upside he has to his game, that can be forgiven.
2. Xavier McKinney, Alabama
McKinney is a walking chess piece. He has played in the box, at slot cornerback, as a sub-package linebacker, and as a single-high safety as well. Nick Saban put all the chips onto this young man’s plate and gave him the whirl at it. Similar to Minkah Fitzpatrick, McKinney’s versatility is a massive asset. McKinney took up Saban’s task with flying colors and is one of the best communicators and instinctual safeties in the class. He is one of those guys that has a knack for finding the football. That counts for in the air, too, as McKinney as very good ball skills. The consistency in his tackling ability is great and he wraps up with ease. He can essentially do it all and be a solid player at the next level.
1. Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
There is so much Winfield can do and he does it all well. His ability to man guys up, even at his smaller stature is really impressive. Winfield has great fluidity and balance in and out of transitions that allow him to stay in phase and blanket receivers. Add in the fact that he has great ball skills and even against bigger tight ends, Winfield is a guy who holds his own. His football IQ has improved dramatically and he recognizes things out of the corner of his eye and makes plays outside of the defensive structure. He can play the box or be a deep field safety, but Winfield is a ton of fun to watch. Winfield brings great value to the field and will be a very good safety in the NFL due to his skillset.
What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback
On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.
Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.
From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.
From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.
In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.
On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.
As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.
In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.
Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)
However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).
What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.
It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.
NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000
All data from Pro Football Reference