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Analysis

Three Reasons for Optimism in Week 2 vs. Seattle

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There is no way to sugar coat what happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers in their Week 1 loss at the New England Patriots. However, they all count the same in the standings and the team sits at just 0-1. Now, they get the 1-0 Seattle Seahawks, who squeaked by the Cincinnati Bengals to secure a win in their home opener.

The initial reaction to these games is that Russell Wilson and company could do similar damage to the Steelers defense as Tom Brady, and the Steelers offense cannot possibly score enough to keep up. However, what you see in Week 1 is never an indictment of who a team is, but rather a gauge of where their journey begins. What you learn when digging into the win of the Seahawks and loss of the Steelers is that there is a reason to think both teams could walk out of Week 2 with a 1-1 record.

These three things could give the Steelers an edge that does not show in the standings.

1. STEELERS RUN DEFENSE

We know how the Steelers lost on Sunday. Tom Brady picked them apart pass by pass, confusing every secondary member. Are the Seahawks going to review this tape and use a similar idea? Yes. The Seahawks are also going to play their game, though.

The Seahawks are a run-first football team. They ran the football 52% of the time last season, the only team to run the ball more than pass. Last week only the Colts, 49ers, Ravens, and Vikings ran at a higher rate than Seattle. They have an identity and play to it. The Steelers defense looked lost on Sunday, but they certainly defended the run well. Sony Michel carried the football 15 times and picked up 14 yards in Week 1.

Looking at the usage of Michel, it was similar to Carson, who had a better day against an arguably worse defensive front last week.

The Seahawks use Rashaad Penny on the field at the same time as Carson in a similar way to the Patriots using Rex Burkhead in Week 1, and the Steelers attempting to use Jaylen Samuels. Burkhead had eight carries for 44 yards against Pittsburgh and was the more dynamic option. Penny had six carries on Sunday. With Cam Heyward, Javon Hargrave, and Stephon Tuitt leading the way, this will be a chance for the Steelers to not only flex a strength but show growth in defending two-back sets.

2. INJURIES TO SEAHAWKS RUN DEFENSE

When the Seahawks traded for Jadeveon Clowney, their front looked competent on paper. Of course, that is on paper. The players that were supposed to lineup across from him included Ziggy Ansah, Poona Ford, and Jarran Reed. However, Ansah played in just seven games last season, missed last week, and is not progressing on the injury report. Ford is listed as day-to-day, but his status seems unlikely. Reed is suspended for this game.

This will leave former Steeler Al Woods, Woodland Hills graduate Quinton Jefferson and second-year end Rasheem Greene to fill in the shoes. All three have their own qualities, but all three were initially listed as rotational options for a reason.

The Steelers offensive line got dominated on Sunday night. It was not a great start for what is supposed to be the strength of the team. With the crowd behind them in a must-win game, the Steelers need to lean on the running game. If they cannot get James Conner going against this Seattle front, then the Mike Munchak loss is worse than the biggest naysayers thought. Heck, even Samuels should potentially get in the mix, as the offensive line should be in a better spot.

3. SECONDARY CONCERNS

The Steelers pass offense looked completely out of sync on Sunday. It looked like a team that lost their best wide receiver and then had to play on the road against a defense that held the Rams to three points in the Super Bowl. The fact of the matter is that the Patriots invested in their secondary and are reaping the rewards.

Stephon Gilmore followed JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the defense still had the McCourty brothers, Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, Duron Harhom and Patrick Chung to defend the questionable tertiary Pittsburgh pass catchers. That is a defense with a lot of talent and a scheme to match.

The Seahawks defense is similar to their offense. They have an identity. The Seahawks run the football, and on defense, they play Cover-3. They also plays sides with their corners, so while third-year cornerback Shaquille Griffin would be an interesting matchup for Smith-Schuster, it is unlikely for him to follow Smith-Schuster, especially considering how much the team moves him around pre-snap.

The Steelers should be moving all of their players around and looking to find matchups away from Griffin to expose. On the other side is second year cornerback Tre Flowers. After an up-and-down first season Flowers allowed 10 receptions for 170 yards and one touchdown against the Bengals. He was getting beat deep and did not have over the top protection with Tedric Thompson at free safety. Thompson saw Andy Dalton connect on multiple deep under his watch and is now banged up with a hamstring.

The Seahawks also tried to play three linebackers rather than move to nickel due to the weakness of their run defense. It left Mychal Kendricks in coverage often as him and K.J. Wright combined to allow nine receptions for 94 yards. Maybe we finally see a receiver against the opposing team’s linebacker this week rather than the other way around?

The Seahawks come in with a better record, but are a team that can be exposed. If the Steelers do not find ways to move the football on the banged-up defense, there have to be serious questions about what Brown and Munchak meant to this roster. Even more questions have to brought on Roethlisberger. On defense, this game starts with defending the run, which should give Steelers fans hope heading into Sunday.

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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