The Steelers Are Now What They Want to Be

With a full complement of weapons on offense, and an increasing comfort with a young defense, the Steelers showed their true colors in Sunday night’s blowout of the Chiefs. And in doing so they showed why they’re still a popular Super Bowl pick
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For a nerdy football analyst, the beauty of a Chiefs game is that the other team pretty much reveals exactly what they want their own identity to be. The well-coached Chiefs have a distinct M.O. On offense, they’re balanced and aerially cautious, dependent on winning through play design. As Al Michaels aptly put it Sunday night: They play small ball. On defense, the Chiefs can be diverse with their third-down pressures, but for the most part, they’re a predictable matchup coverage unit.

The purity of Kansas City’s approach presents opponents with something of a blank canvas on which to paint a gameplan. If you’re a talented team, you attack the Chiefs by doing whatever you feel that you do best.

And so we learned a lot about the talented Steelers Sunday night. It wasn’t just that they throttled Kansas City. (In fact, that may not be relevant at all. Just a week ago, these very Steelers were on the other end of a throttling at Philadelphia.) It was the way the Steelers went about doing it.

Le’Veon Bell returned from his three-game suspension Sunday night and wide receiver Markus Wheaton was also fully back after missing the first two weeks with a shoulder injury and playing only 27 of 60 snaps in his Week 3 return. With Bell and Wheaton, we saw the Steelers reemploy the spread empty backfield formations that came to define them in 2015. Ben Roethlisberger loves spreading out, as the defense’s response often tips the coverage or any potential blitzes. The spreads also set up Pittsburgh’s potent wide receiver screen game. And, because of Bell’s versatility, it can dictate matchup problems, not just for Bell himself, but also the receivers around him.

There were snaps Sunday night where Bell and fellow running back DeAngelo Williams were on the field together. Bell was the movable chess piece in this scenario, often motioning before the snap. Williams was the single back. The Steelers didn’t have to dip deep into this package, but we’ll almost certainly see it again, probably with regularity.

In some ways, not having Bell and Wheaton the first few weeks may have been a blessing in disguise. Playing to their personnel in Weeks 1, 2 and 3, the Steelers went with more tight end-heavy packages, playing regular snaps with three on the field: Jesse James, David Johnson and Xavier Grimble. (This from a team that worried about taking a drastic step back at the position when Heath Miller retired.) The Steelers ran the ball well out of the three-tight end sets and were efficient when they threw. And the process may have yielded a hidden gem in Grimble, who has shown a grasp on the nuances of route running, particularly on seam patterns.

Of course, as diverse and well-crafted as this Steelers offense is, it may be at its best when Roethlisberger is just chucking the ball downfield. Something the Steelers have done weekly—including Sunday night, with great success—is throw Go routes to Sammie Coates and deep one-cut patterns (posts, corners, digs) to Antonio Brown. Here, Roethlisberger simply drops back, reads the safety, and heaves it. And because he’s so strong-armed and comfortable with bodies around him, he can do this out of spread “empty”—a formation where most QBs, playing with no reinforcements in pass protection, have to get the ball out almost immediately.

• WHAT IT TAKES TO PLAY THE SLOT: Once the domain of backups, the slot cornerback now plays an essential role in combating spread offenses—and some teams are putting their best defensive back at the position.

On the other side of the ball, the Steelers on Sunday suddenly looked like the defense that coordinator Keith Butler wants. There were complex blitzes involving assignment switches amongst front seven defenders (an effort to confuse the offense). And, per usual, most of those blitzes attacked inside.

In the first three weeks, Pittsburgh had blitzed less than any defense in the NFL. Those who know Butler found this utterly perplexing. Butler has an extensive array of pressure designs—particularly out of Cover 2 shells—plus an appetite for aggression. Seeing him play straight zone coverage snap after snap was like seeing a coyote sit idle as a lamb strode by.

It’s hard to say why Butler played conservatively the first three weeks. The guess here would be that he wanted to ease first-round rookie corner Artie Burns and second-round rookie safety/slot corner Sean Davis into action gently. Davis, dealing with a lower back injury, was active but did not start on Sunday. He was replaced by Jordan Dangerfield, who spent the previous two seasons on the practice squad. Davis’s status wasn’t fully known until Friday, and Butler’s gameplan was constructed several days before that. Most likely, Butler would have featured a more “Blitzburghian” gameplan even if Davis had been in there.

This defense should only get better. Its most dynamic player, linebacker Ryan Shazier, will soon have a healthy knee again. Burns and Davis will get more comfortable. Butler will discover a front seven rotation that he really likes. And the offense will often provide a lead to play with.

Through a quarter of the season, Denver’s record is the AFC’s best and New England’s start—3-1 without Tom Brady—is the most impressive. But it’s the Steelers who remain the conference’s popular Super Bowl pick, and for good reason.

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