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Analysis

Are the Steelers Ready to Defend Keenan Allen?

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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.

Bush GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.

Bushhsh GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.

Boyd I N The Slot GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Traveling cornerbacks

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.

Boyd GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.

Steeven Nelson GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Minkah Fitzpatrick

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.

Minkah GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.

However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.

It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.

That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.

So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.

Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.

The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.

With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.

Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.

At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.

But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.

They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.

“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.

“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”

Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.

Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.

“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.

There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.

The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.

This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.

Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.

“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.

Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.

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