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Steelers Analysis

3 Key Changes the Steelers Defense Can Make to Fix Problems



Steelers OLB T.J. Watt
Steelers OLB T.J. Watt against the Green Bay Packers. Nov. 12, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers boast one of the best pass rushes in all football. Largely due to their talent and depth both on the inside and at outside linebackers, they get pressure against virtually any offensive line, even teams that boast one of the better groups in the NFL. But throughout the season they have had sporadic games where they just can’t get home. Very little of it has anything to do with the players but with the rotation and team deploying their usage.

The Packers were able to shut down Pittsburgh’s pass rush oddly. T.J. Watt got eight pressures on the day but appeared to have those pressures in bunches rather than consistently throughout the game. The reason? He and Alex Highsmith played over 90 percent of the snaps. Markus Golden and Nick Herbig just played five and two snaps, respectively. That’s not enough snaps for those two guys.

Steelers OLB Alex Highsmith

Steelers OLB Alex Highsmith against the Green Bay Packers, Nov. 12, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Even late in the game, they did not get to Jordan Love. Watt admitted he was gassed at that point.  Zach Tom handled Watt better than I thought he would in that spot. Alex Highsmith had a few pressures but nothing earth-shattering as the Packers chipped him and gave him extra attention. Cam Heyward is not 100 percent. The best player on the defensive line was arguably Keeanu Benton, who destroyed the Packers’ line’s interior. The explanation might lie in how the Packers worked on the edge and Pittsburgh’s lack of juice outside Benton. But more than that, it’s a wholly unsustainable rotation that the Steelers must use upfront.

Not only did the Steelers not use the rotation, but they never moved anyone around, either. It remained a static attack where the Packers knew where Watt, Highsmith, and others were at all times. Maybe the injuries at linebacker contributed to that, but Pittsburgh continues to have a baffling amount of static play on the line. All the other best pass rushers in the league, from Myles Garrett to Micah Parsons and others, move around. Why not Watt and Highsmith?

Add onto the fact that they did not rotate in this game, and it becomes clear why the pressure at the edge sometimes made little impact. Pittsburgh has two fantastic backups at edge rusher. They should move the guys up front to get them better looks. Generally speaking, not much made sense on how they deployed their edge rushers, and their pass rush likely suffered because of it.

The Interior Can Improve

The interior of the defensive line can get fixed up, too. Pittsburgh has two great pieces in Heyward and Benton, but some mixing into that rotation can make guys more effective in different spurts.

For one, against the Packers, missing Montravius Adams, who has been sneakily productive in the pass rush opportunities he gets, hurt them. They have to rotate at edge rushers more in those weighty areas. Larry Ogunjobi needs to play a bit less. His tank runs hot and cold when he plays 50 snaps per game. If you reduced that by 15, he would be much more effective. Benton has to play more, too. The pass rush will be fine, but there are tweaks to get it to the level of potentially the best front in the NFL.

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin even adjusted to get some pressure home late, so credit him. He cranked up the heat and sent blitzes after Love. He rattled him because of how many people he sent. Keanu Neal, Elijah Riley, Elandon Roberts, and Patrick Peterson all blitzed at different points, and Love got hit on almost all the plays. But they could use better timing.

Steelers Cam Heyward

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward at practice on Oct. 27, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

However, the overarching aspect is that Pittsburgh’s third down and long defense is struggling. When they blitz on 3rd and 7 or longer, Pittsburgh is third in success rate in the NFL. But with their static four-man rush, teams are selling out to keep extra bodies inside and expose Pittsburgh’s secondary on more extended concepts. They have the worst pass rush success rate in those situations in the NFL. When they play their middle-of-the-field open coverages, they also have the worst success rate in the NFL on those plays.

It goes hand in hand. Pittsburgh dresses it up on third down on the back end but not upfront. They must do that to rush four and get home in exotic ways. Between rotation changes and schematic tweaks, teams have some keys on the Steelers’ pass rush that makes it more complicated than it should be for them. In most games, it probably won’t matter. But the Houston or Green Bay games sometimes pop up, and they shouldn’t happen. These changes will ensure that.