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Scouting Report: Play-Action Game Fuels Titans Offense

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Heading into Week 7, the Steelers have their first 5-0 record since 1978. However, they face their stiffest test yet in the undefeated Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Even after a strong performance in Week 6 against the Browns, the Steelers are reeling from the loss of Devin Bush. Meanwhile, the Titans are going to be missing their best offensive lineman in Left Tackle Taylor Lewan. What are the Steelers facing as they head into an undefeated clash on Sunday?

Tennessee’s Schemes

Titans Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith has been with the organization for nearly a decade at this point. However, he has his own unique scheme that was influenced by the former offensive coordinator and now Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur. The Titans run out of primarily a run-based offense supplemented by play action. In fact, most of the time, this is a team that runs 12 or 21 personnel and only keeps two wide receivers on the field as a result. They have a clear brand of physicality up front that builds off of Derrick Henry and allows Ryan Tannehill to shred defenses behind the run defense as they try to slow down Henry.

The Titans only use one wide receiver here and are in 21 personnel. They love to get their tight ends involved in the passing game over the middle of the field. However, crossers, curls, digs, and other key routes over the middle of the field with their receivers are huge too. They pull out a curl here and get an easy first down as a result of the linebackers keying in on the run and vacating the space behind them. They make everything look the same and give a lot of eye candy pre and post-snap to throw linebackers off to vacate those middle of the field zones. The stress placed on those defenders in the box is immense.

In terms of running the football, the Titans run a multi-dimensional scheme. Gap and zone runs are included, but with a big back like Henry, they run more outside zone than one would expect. In fact, the Titans on average run more zone than they do gap, as the split zone and inside zone series in their playbook are extensive. Duo is another favorite of Smith’s to pull out. This play above is a spilt zone run, and they get the linebackers and safety to flare out with the tight end on that flare motion. As such, it opens up a huge gap and lane for Henry to run right through. Smith gets creative with this eye candy post-snap to create throwing or running lanes.

The last key concept in the Titans offense is space. The Steelers have a great pass rush and may be able to force the Titans into their shotgun looks and plain dropbacks as a result. In which case, that is when they rely on space and traffic to cause havoc. Much like the Steelers, they love to utilize space on the boundary out of tight splits and bunch sets. Creating traffic out of these bunch sets is a key way they often convert on third down and medium. The tight split on this play allows Corey Davis enough room to attack that leverage and get open on the out route. It gives an advantage to the receiver.

As far as the defense goes, the Titans run a 3-4 scheme with potent outside linebackers to boot. Mike Vrabel does take some influence from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots with this defense, make no mistake. As such, the Titans are mostly a Cover 3 and Cover 2 team that likes to use their linebackers and safeties as exotic blitzers. The key to this defense is working is the disguising of coverages. A lot of Tennessee’s turnovers this season have been off of these disguised coverages, and Ben Roethlisberger has to be careful to not get trapped by one of these on Sunday.

Players to Watch

QB Ryan Tannehill

The biggest threat to the Steelers in this game, Tannehill is the guy that takes this offense to the next level. Make no mistake, while the system does fit Tannehill like a glove, he has played at an extremely high level this season. Tannehill has been smart, efficient, and more importantly, he has taken care of the football thus far on the season. With his athleticism, Tannehill can extend the play or take off when needed as well. It is his combination of smarts and precise accuracy that make him such a dangerous passer to all levels of the field.

RB Derrick Henry

If Tannehill is the guy that elevates the team, then Henry is the engine that allows Tannehill the flexibility to elevate that offense. Henry is a big, bruising back that is now for running over guys and stiff-arming them into oblivion, much like he did to Josh Norman two weeks ago. For a man so big, Henry is fast and quick as well. This is either the best or second-best running back the Steelers have faced this season, and with fancy window dressing and schematics to help him, Henry is going to be an issue.

WR A.J. Brown

A star that broke onto the scene last year, A.J. Brown is becoming an even better receiver in his second season. He lives in the middle of the field, and more importantly, Brown is a menace after the catch. With a dense frame and great contact balance, Brown is able to break tackles and evade tacklers with ease all game. His physicality allows him to separate at a high level and create space for open throwing windows. The Steelers will have to be worried about Brown all game.

S Kevin Byard

There are lots of talented players on the Titans defense, but safety Kevin Byard is a former All-Pro and a certified ballhawk on the back end of the defense. A rangy free safety, Byard allows the Titans to switch up and disguise their coverages with his rare athleticism, ball-hawking skills, and instincts. The Steelers will have to be wary of Byard at all times as he can change the momentum of a game in one play.

Matchups to Watch

Malcolm Butler vs Chase Claypool

This is a matchup that will fly under the radar, but this one could be a huge advantage for the Steelers. The Titans will be without speedy cornerback Adoree Jackson, and that means if the Steelers want it, they can line up Chase Claypool on Malcolm Butler. Butler has struggled with faster receivers this year, and was burnt by Will Fuller for a big touchdown last week on a miscommunication. Claypool’s size and speed is a huge mismatch in this matchup and it would not be surprising to see an explosive play from this matchup.

Robert Spillane vs Titans Tight Ends

Tasked with covering David Njoku last week, Spillane rose to the occasion in the short zones he was asked to man. However, Tennessee attacks up the seam and over the middle, which is a place where Spillane was not tested last week. That aspect of his coverage ability is currently unknown. With Devin Bush out and the Steelers missing that athleticism, it would stand to reason that this Spillane’s audition and will be huge in determining how the Steelers approach the linebacker situation in the future.

Ty Sambrello vs Bud Dupree

With Taylor Lewan out for the season, backup left tackle Ty Sambrello will take over his spot. J.J. Watt did get a strip-sack off of Sambrello last week, but after that, Sambrello settled in quite nicely. Now, he will be tested with the explosive and powerful Bud Dupree who leads the Steelers in sacks up to this point. It will be a matchup where Dupree has the edge and in similar matchups this year, he has taken advantage of these matchups.

 

Steelers

Steelers Estimated $3.6m Under Salary Cap after New Contract for Ben Roethlisberger

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The Steelers have are salary cap compliant and have an estimated $3.6 million in breathing room after renegotiating the contract of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Thursday, according to contract figures reported by NFL Network, salary cap data from OverTheCap.com and Steelers Now analysis.

Roethlisberger’s contract, which is technically a five-year deal, but will last only through the 2021 season before being voided will save the team $15.3 million under the 2021 salary cap.

Though the Steelers are finally in the black with regards to the 2021 salary cap, they will still likely need to make additional moves to shore up extra salary cap space. The team will need over $8 million in space to sign its 2021 NFL Draft class, the final two players for the 53-man roster and a practice squad. Only the top 51 contracts count toward the cap in the offseason.

The Steelers’ estimated $3.6 million in cap space is based on a $180 million salary cap, which is based on Steelers Now sources on several national reports. The final salary cap figure for 2021 has not yet been made official.

The team has a three contracts that can be restructured, those of defensive end Stephon Tuitt, kicker Chris Boswell and fullback Derek Watt, that could save the team around another $6 million.

The contracts of guard David DeCastro and cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson could also be extended or re-negotiated. All are entering the final season of their contract.

The Steelers have two dozen pending free agents, including starters Tyson Alualu, Zach Banner, Jordan Berry, James Conner, Bud Dupree, Matt Feiler, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Alejandro Villanueva and key reserves Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton. 

Starting center J.C. Hassenauer and backup inside linebackers Marcus Allen and Robert Spillane are exclusive rights free agents. Backup outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi and wide receiver and kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud are restricted free agents.

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Steelers

Report: Ben Roethlisberger Took $5m Pay Cut, Lowers Cap Hit by $15m

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The Pittsburgh Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger agreed to a new contract for the 2021 season on Thursday and details of the deal are now being reported.

Roethlisberger agreed to a $5 million pay cut as part of a new contract that will technically run through 2025, with the final four seasons becoming void after 2021. 

Roethlisberger was set to earn $4 million in salary and a $15 million roster bonus for 2021, none of which was guaranteed. Instead, he will earn $1.075 million in salary, with $12.925 million converted to guaranteed signing bonus. That signing bonus will be spread over the initial five years of the contract.

That means that Roethlisberger will count for a total of $25.91 million against the Steelers’ 2021 salary cap, a savings of $15.3 million. The details of Roethlisberger’s contract were first reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL Network.

After the final four years of Roethlisberger’s contract are voided, the Steelers will have $10.3 million of dead money, which will count against the team’s salary cap in 2022 or will be spread out between 2022 and 2023.

Roethlisberger, 39, had a strong season statistically in 2020, passing for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns with ten interceptions, but saw his play slide as the team dropped five of its final six games.

A two-time Super Bowl champion, Roethlisberger is the Steelers’ all-time leader in passing yards (60,349), touchdowns (396), completions (5,050) and wins (156).

Steelers Now’s Alan Saunders contributed salary cap information and graphic to this report.

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Steelers Sign Ben Roethlisberger to New Contract for 2021

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The Pittsburgh Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have agreed on a new contract for the 2021 season, the club announced Thursday.

“We are excited we were able to come to an agreement with Ben Roethlisberger on a new contract for him to return to the Steelers in 2021,” General Manager and Vice President Kevin Colbert said. “We know that Ben can still play at a high level and do special things for this team. Our goal remains the same – to put together a roster that will compete for another championship. We are happy that Ben will be one of our leaders to help us accomplish that goal.”

While exact details of the new deal have yet to be reported, it can be assumed that the two sides came to terms on a significant restructuring to have Roethlisberger’s contract fit under the team’s bloated salary cap for 2021.

Roethlisberger was set to count over $41 million towards the Steelers’ 2021 salary cap obligations prior to Thursday’s announcement.

It is also important to note that the contract is not an extension, but simply a one-year deal to keep Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh for the upcoming 2021 campaign.

“It is my greatest honor to be a Pittsburgh Steeler and give my all for this organization,” Roethlisberger said. “I am grateful to be at this stage of my career and more than happy to adjust my contract in a way that best helps the team to address other players who are so vital to our success. I love this game and love to compete, and I believe in this team and my ability to deliver when called upon. It all starts with great preparation and I am ready to go.”

Roethlisberger had a fine season statistically in 2020, passing for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns with ten interceptions, but saw his play dip as the team dropped five of six games to close the year.

A two-time Super Bowl champion, Roethlisberger is the Steelers’ all-time leader in passing yards (60,349), touchdowns (396), completions (5,050) and wins (156).

Roethlisberger turned 39 years old on Tuesday, March 2.

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