Nobody Wants to Face the Steelers
A little after 7:30 ET Sunday night, the AFC playoff picture took shape. Peyton Manning had come off the bench to replace Brock Osweiler and lead the Broncos to a hard-fought victory over the Chargers. Earlier the Dolphins had upset the Patriots, so Manning’s victory meant the AFC’s road to Super Bowl 50 goes through Denver. It also meant the 12-4 Bengals find themselves playing in the same Wild-Card round that they’ve failed to get out of each of the past four years.
Exciting as the jostling for playoff seeding was, we’ll look back on it later this month and see it as academic. Because the most dangerous team entering this year’s AFC postseason is the one that squeaked into the sixth seed earlier in the day thanks to a win over the lowly Browns and the Bills’ upset of the Jets.
The 10-6 Steelers are this year’s Team That Nobody Wants to Face. Start with their offense, which possesses more aerial firepower than any other in the league, save for maybe Arizona’s. Ben Roethlisberger is the game’s most improved pocket quarterback over the last five years. He’s also a 12th-year veteran with 15 playoff starts on his résumé, including three Super Bowls (2-1 record there, 10-5 overall).
In Roethlisberger’s first Super Bowl (’05 vs. Seattle) he was essentially a caretaker for a power-running team. In his second (’08 vs. Arizona) he was a more balanced signal-caller capable of getting hot for certain stretches. In his third (’10 vs. Green Bay) he was a subtly ascending dropback passer who still made his living on unparalleled impromptu playmaking. Entering what could very well be a fourth AFC title run, Roethlisberger remains all of these things but has also become a cerebral point guard for a dynamic spread passing attack. It’s a passing attack that features lethal speed and quickness at all four wide receiver spots, plus a stalwart possession tight end (Heath Miller) who remains adept between the field numbers.
What Roethlisberger does now that he didn’t use to do is dissect defenses with three-step timing throws. This only happens with a QB capable of reading a defense before the snap. Whether Roethlisberger diagnoses man-to-man or zone only determines in what way he and the receivers hurt you. Antonio Brown has carved up man coverage (see Week 15 against Denver or Week 17 against Cleveland), and his quickness in and out of routes creates greater voids in zone coverage as defenders are compelled to play with added cushion. Double-teams from any coverage present little to no trouble for Brown.
The only notable negative with Roethlisberger is that he sometimes succumbs to the temptation of focusing too much on Brown. While this has benefits much of the time, it can be a dangerous two-way street leading to turnovers. We saw this on Roethlisberger’s second interception Sunday when, staring down Brown’s in-breaking route, he guided underneath linebacker Craig Robertson to an easy pick.
Besides a greater risk of turnover, Roethlisberger must avoid honing too far in on his superstar wideout because, in Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, he has two explosive downfield weapons worthy of five-plus touches per game. Bryant is Mike Wallace with flexibility, which is to say a terrifying deep threat. That flexibility allows him to turn the corner on short-area touches, giving dimension to Pittsburgh’s spread game through wide receiver screens and end-arounds. Wheaton has become deft down the seams and at the deep-intermediate levels. Because of the monsters lining up alongside him, he sees a lot of favorable one-on-one matchups. Same goes for Darrius Heyward-Bey and his unreliable hands but turbo feet, which the Steelers try to exploit with two or three deep shots a game.
Lost in all the oohing and ahhing about this passing game is an offensive line that allows it to function. Assistant coach Mike Munchak has done a superb job orchestrating a group that has overcome losses at the two most important positions, left tackle (Kelvin Beachum) and center (Maurkice Pouncey). To help the line, offensive coordinator Todd Haley has also wisely mixed extra tight ends and fullbacks into his formations, supplementing the protection with added bodies for downfield shots when it’s not a spread formation, and also creating more gaps in a running game that, thanks to mobile Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro and sagacious running back DeAngelo Williams, ranked sixth in yards per attempt this year. Enthralling as the Steelers are through the air, they’re willing and able to pound the ball down your throat if you keep both safeties back deep.
The over/under for Pittsburgh’s offense on any outing should be 30 points. (On the season, the Steelers averaged 26.4, fourth most in the league. When Roethlisberger started, it was just over 28.) That’s encouraging when you consider that in seven games against playoff teams this year, the Steelers defense allowed a respectable 23.7 points an outing. (The Steelers won three of these games.) In their five games against AFC playoff clubs, it was 22.8 points an outing (record: 2-3, with both wins coming on the back end of this five-game block.)
It’s a defense that’s much better than the one we saw in a 28-21 loss at New England in Week 1, or even in a 33-20 win over their Wild-Card opponent Bengals in Week 14. First-year coordinator Keith Butler has been aggressive with pressure packages and disguises, particularly on third down. That sort of approach can take players time to get comfortable with. The Steelers have looked better in attack mode in the last month of the season.
Blitzing and disguising require three key elements from a defense. One is an ability to stop the run in order to create third-and-long situations to begin with. With defensive ends Cameron Hayward and Stephon Tuitt emerging as block-shedding penetrators who can also control multiple gaps in the base scheme, and with speedy inside linebackers like Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers are equipped to win on first and second down.
The second element is corners you can trust in one-on-one coverage. The Steelers are not great at this position, but with their coverage concepts—blitzes included—so often centered on matchup zones as opposed to straight man-to-man, they don’t need great players here, just smart ones. They’ve been happy with the development of 24-year-old Ross Cockrell, who shares times with Antwon Blake and the recently discovered slot man Brandon Boykin. And on the other side (or in the slot, if Boykin is out), veteran William Gay has become more of a playmaker as he nears tenure in this system. All four of these corners can, in theory, be attacked, but Butler’s disguises and pressure packages can also hide them.
The third element is speed. The more speed you have in your blitz packages, the more aggressive you can be with your disguises. Fast players cover more ground and can therefore line up farther from the ball.
Since installing their vaunted 3-4 in the early ’90s, the Steelers have always been about fire-zone pressures, which very often involve inside linebackers either rushing or faking rush and dropping into coverage with other fake rushers. (Against the Browns on Sunday, for example, James Harrison was a critical piece in the coverage concepts in the flat and against tight end Gary Barnidge.)
The Steelers have kept their fire-zone blitzes under Butler, which makes the speed of Timmons and Shazier all the more important. But taking the idea a step further, Butler more than any other AFC defensive coach this season has effectively featured third-level blitzers (i.e. corners and safeties). Strong safety Will Allen has become particularly effective as a disguised rusher (his efforts in this regard destroyed multiple Browns drives on Sunday). And cornerback blitzes from the boundary (i.e. the short side of the field when the ball is on the hash) have forced multiple turnovers for Pittsburgh. Quarterbacks either don’t see and expect these blitzes, or if, they do, are inclined to throw the ball toward the spot where the blitz is coming from. Butler understands this and has brilliantly designed trap coverages that rotate to those vacated areas.
The Steelers, on both sides of the ball, give an opponent a lot to prepare for. That alone is dangerous. Factor in that the Steelers in many places, including everywhere on offense, are more talented than those opponents and what you have is the scariest team entering the AFC postseason.