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Analysis

The Ripple Effect of Devin Bush Calling Plays

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Devin Bush started off rookie minicamp with all of the praise and discussion that went along with him being a top-ten pick. His peers talked about the way he goes about his business, while the coaches and media raved about his ability to call plays, despite just being handed a playbook.

“Right or wrong, I was just being vocal and trusting what I see,” Bush said. “I’ve got quite a bit to learn. I just have to know how to speak the language of the defense and get caught up on all my plays. … I know concepts about the style of defense that we’re trying to run, I just have to learn the language.”

His proactive nature and instincts are what drew the Steelers to Bush, and while he even admitted to a mistake here and there, he wanted to set the tone and show that he had no issues being vocal and that with a few weeks learning this playbook, he will be calling out everything as expected.

The Steelers traded into the top 10 because they feel that Bush has the speed and athleticism to replace Ryan Shazier. However, for as big of a loss the speed was with Shazier, it was arguably just as devastating to lose their play caller, and a player who had no issue calling an audible and setting his defense up based on what he sees.

It may take Bush some time, but the team certainly sees Bush taking on that role as a play caller-something he did at Michigan-sooner than later.

Bush stepping into a role as a play caller with similar speed to Shazier goes a long way in the defense taking a step forward. However, it is the ripple effect of Bush sliding into that role that makes him so valuable.

Last season was the first season that Vince Williams was asked to call the plays. Williams went from a special teams player and sixth-round pick to the quarterback of the Steelers defense. It showed tremendous growth for Williams, and his performance against the New England Patriots, playing every snap, mostly as the only linebacker on the field while getting his team in-line to hold the Super Bowl Champions to 10 points was easily the highlight game of his career.

However, that came at the end of a challenging season which showed that Williams may be in a bit over his head with the extra responsibility.

After an 0-1-1 start to the season, defensive coordinator Keith Butler admitted that the defense was not being communicated effectively enough and needed to be simplified.

“I hope it’s simple enough for where they can run the defense and there wouldn’t be a problem,” said Butler before the Steelers Week 3 Monday Night win at Tampa Bay. “Not that we had a bunch of these in-game, but we did have some guys running free a couple times. You saw a guy go down the middle, that was a lack of communication on the field. We have to do a better job of that.”

While they did get better over the course of the season, a team that was allowing under 18 points per game with Shazier in the lineup, allowed over 22 points per game the following season. Below, you can see the differences between when Ryan Shazier was on the field calling plays in 2017, compared to Williams calling plays in 2018. The defense was worse in every facet of the game. The biggest difference came in the passing game.

Ryan Shazier on field 2017 Vince Williams on field 2018
Run Success rate 41.0% 44.6%
Pass Success rate 46.8% 55.2%
Explosive Run % 5.0% 5.4%
Explosive Pass % 13.7% 15.8%
Turnover % 1.9% 1.0%
Sack % 9.9% 8.5%
Yards Per Carry 4.06 4.07
Yards Per Pass Attempt 7.35 8.12
*stats provided by The Quant Edge

While Williams still took strides as a player last season, taking the better version of Williams and putting him in a lesser role should help maximize his potential. Williams was always comfortable playing next to Shazier, let him make plays. If Bush can help now that Williams is a bit savvier himself, the duo could be better overall.

The Steelers also signed Mark Barron as their contingency plan in case a trade into the top ten not worked out. While Williams was taking strides replacing the mental side of Shazier, Barron was brought in to help replace some of what Shazier did in coverage.

As a former safety, Barron is a good bit faster than Williams and has always been a sound tackler who is average in coverage.

Now, with Bush in the mix, Barron goes from a player who was going to be asked to start to a specialty player, which is what Barron should be. On obvious passing downs, he can take Williams off the field while keeping two linebackers in the game, and he can provide a run-stuffing third safety in specific sub-package sets. It was clear last season that a starting role was a bit much for Barron, who lost snaps to Cory Littleton before being let go by the Rams. However, now Barron has the chance to be placed in a role that optimizes his skills.

If Bush can continue the groundwork that he laid in rookie minicamp and call plays, he will have helped upgrade three linebacker spots, all of which will play a role in the 2019 defense. Tracking how often Bush is calling plays, and in which situations will be important to watch. Once he masters those duties, the defense should be in great position moving forward.

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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