Pittsburgh Steelers fans will remember the Keenan Allen game for years to come. The 2018 season came to a spiraling end in Pittsburgh, and not many moments stand out more than a 33-30 loss that stemmed from a blown 23-7 lead at home to the Los Angeles Chargers. Allen dominated that game from start to finish with 14 receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown, sparking the comeback with reception after reception.
Do not get it mistaken, Allen is an elite NFL receiver, and he had his way with Joe Haden at times in that game. However, what was so memorable about the performance was the number of receptions that saw L.J. Fort or Jon Bostic on the defending end. How can this elite receiver be one-on-one with a (relatively) slow linebacker?
This, along with the Patriots relentlessly beating them in that area led to the Steelers making a drastic move to trade up for Devin Bush. Mike Tomlin noted that they ran out of smoke when it came to throwing options at Allen in that loss, and he spent the offseason making sure he did not find himself in that spot again.
The progression of Bush, along with the addition of free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has transformed this into a completely different defense. Now, the question is whether they can learn from their mistakes, and take on Allen in a redemption game on another primetime spot.
Since the Fitzpatrick trade, the Steelers defense went from a team allowing 49% of passes to grade successfully to 41%. Over the middle of the field, they went from allowing 51% of passes to be successful down to 39%. This is significant.
However, it is fair to point out that the defense went from Tom Brady and Russell Wilson to Jimmy Garoppolo, Andy Dalton and Lamar Jackson. On the other end, Mark Andrews, George Kittle, Tyler Boyd are the primary receivers for those teams and all three play mostly over the middle of the field.
Boyd is not quite Allen, but he is on pace for 118 receptions and 1,299 yards this season. That includes being held to three receptions for 33 yards against the Steelers. Boyd spent 57% of his snaps in the slot this season, while Allen has only played 44% of his snaps in the slot. You would expect the Steelers to defend Allen similarly to how they defended Boyd in Week 4. How did the Steelers defend Boyd in his 26 snaps in the slot?
Mike Hilton: 7
Devin Bush: 5
Minkah Fitzpatrick: 5
Joe Haden: 2
Cameron Sutton: 2
Mark Barron: 2
Bud Dupree: 1
Terrell Edmunds: 1
Steven Nelson: 1
Linebackers on Boyd
It was not nearly as many snaps as the Chargers game last season, but you are going to see linebackers on Allen once again on Sunday. The Steelers mix between man and zone and this season are doing so post-snap as well. It is going to create confusion for quarterbacks but will put slot receivers in zones where linebackers are covering.
However, the image below seems like doing too much. Bud Dupree spent one snap on Boyd Monday Night and had over the top help, which led to Andy Dalton looking the other way. Still, we do not need to see Dupree defending the team’s primary receiver this far down the field.
Mark Barron was on Boyd in a soft zone on third and long but had a busted coverage as well. Fortunately, the pressure of the Steelers got home. Barron may miss this game, and the progression of Bush would have Bush in that spot of the defense anyway. Speaking of Bush, he played five snaps in coverage on Boyd. Dalton threw his two completions when Bush was responsible for Boyd, and Boyd picked up 28 yards.
On the first completion, Bush stepped up reading play action, and the slot receiver ran free over his zone. In the second play, you can see a miscommunication below. Boyd is running in an in over the middle, while Bush is following the tight end in man coverage. However, the safety appears to be playing zone and was ready to pick up the pass catcher as he broke deep down the field. Bush needed to stay flat and leave his man for Boyd.
However, as the game went on, Bush got more comfortable and was able to defend Boyd and turn upfield with him to force Dalton to look the other way.
Lastly, we see Bush get the communication down with Mike Hilton and Fitzpatrick. Boyd is lined up across from Bush and is running a deep route. This time Bush stays short and takes the in-breaking route, and passes Boyd off to the safety. This resulted in a key third-quarter sack that essentially ended the game.
Although it was only for three snaps, the Steelers did dabble with defending Boyd by following him into the slot with Joe Haden and Steven Nelson. As shown in the play below, Haden squared his hips and forced Boyd to break his route to the inside. The Steelers had Terrell Edmunds bracket Boyd waiting for him over the middle of the field. This was a key third-down stop.
In this play, Nelson is defending Boyd in the slot. He again forces Boyd into the middle of the field where safety is bracketing over the top. This time it is Fitzpatrick, who gives up a five-yard reception but makes a clean tackle short of the sticks.
The Steelers also dabbled with a similar look to the play above with Fitzpatrick playing on Boyd. The Steelers gave him free release, dropped a player into deep coverage and had Fitzpatrick crash into the slot looking to make a play on the football. It was the majority of the snaps Fitzpatrick saw on Boyd and was similar to the play he made on Mark Andrews to force an interception against Baltimore. On this play, Edmunds and Kam Kelly drop back while Fitzpatrick crashed the middle to break up the pass.
So, when the question is who will defend Allen, the answer is everybody. Hilton will see him for the majority of the night, and he has been excellent in coverage this season. However, the team loves to blitz him and mix up their coverages, and that is going to make it a team effort to defend Allen.
The Steelers have shown that they are more open to moving Nelson and Haden into the slot. They have the speed at linebacker in Bush that they did not have, and they have used brackets with Edmunds and Fitzpatrick as well as looked to draw traps with the safeties.
They have been more proactive in defending the slot and it has shown over the past three weeks. On Sunday Night Football, the ultimate test and a true indictment of Keith Butler as a game planner will show if all of the time and resources were worth it.