- The offense can do it all. The question is whether a new approach on defense can push Pittsburgh over the top in the AFC
1. Meet the most dangerous offense in football. It can be a juggernaut through the air in four-receiver sets, where Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey present a quartet of speed like nothing we’ve ever seen. (Oh, and the fifth eligible receiver in that grouping would be Le’Veon Bell.) Or, this offense can be a juggernaut with six offensive linemen or extra H-backs and tight ends on the field, pounding the rock with Bell. That’s what it did last season, when the patient, elusive Bell rushed for 835 yards in Weeks 11-16.
2. Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line are the common denominators in all of Pittsburgh’s offensive packages. Roethlisberger has evolved into a Field General QB, both before and after the snap. And he can still extend plays, even easier than before, in fact, considering his line has quietly become one of the NFL’s two or three best.
3. Great as Roethlisberger is, there were times late last season where he didn’t read basic underneath coverages. This led to interceptions and, luckily for him but still troubling, several dropped interceptions.
4. There are two things Pittsburgh does brilliantly with its wide receivers. One is aligning Antonio Brown alone on the weak side. This almost always clarifies the coverage because Brown attracts a double-team from the safety, making the defense nearly impossible to disguise. The other is aligning in bunch formations, with three receivers grouped together. Often these bunches are tight to the formation, which affords receivers more space for working off the line. When the Steelers are in a trips formation but not bunched, the defense must be on high alert for a wide receiver screen. Or, it must be on alert for a fake screen that sets up a downfield pass to a streaking tight end. Jesse James and Xavier Grimble both produced on these in 2016.
5. Right guard David DeCastro is an important piece in this offense. He’s often the designated move-blocker in Pittsburgh’s gap-scheme runs. They love to run Bell on “counter left,” where he can work comfortably behind DeCastro’s pull-block.
6. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked this offseason about the importance of playing more basic coverages and rushing with four. Presumably, he’d like to employ a little more man-to-man. (Adding Joe Haden is certainly a good early step in that process.) In the AFC championship game, Butler’s Steelers played all zone coverage and Tom Brady tore them apart. It’ll be interesting to see just how much man-to-man and other straightforward coverages Butler calls. He runs a diverse scheme, and with almost all of last year’s lineup back he’ll be tempted to expand, not reduce. We’ll see what he does when the games actually start counting.
7. Defining characteristics of Butler’s existing zone scheme include slot corner blitzes (often with a Cover 2 rotation behind them, in hopes of the quarterback throwing into a double-team) and A-gap blitzes, with linebackers penetrating between the guard and center. In the base packages, the Steelers play with one deep safety. To the wide side of the field, they’ll play matchup zone, and to the short side of the field, they’ll play landmark zone, with defenders dropping to a spot. Lastly, there are a ton of zone exchanges. That’s where the defense blitzes one player but drops another pass rusher back into coverage, creating an unpredictable four-man rush.
8. The departure of 11-year inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is critical when you consider that no replacement was brought in. Instead, the Steelers are promoting fifth-year man Vince Williams. He’s a classic first- and second-down run-thumper. He may have some trouble teaming with the electrifying Ryan Shazier in nickel coverage. Don’t be surprised if the Steelers do what they did four years ago and become a dime sub-package defense this season, with safety Robert Golden or newly acquired J.J. Wilcox essentially playing linebacker.
9. Last year’s second-round pick, Sean Davis, can revitalize the team’s safety position. Davis’s long-term future might be in centerfield, though for now it looks like he’ll play closer to the box, like he did last season. This is probably because Davis can cover bigger bodied receivers man-to-man. The Steelers love his range in space, though. Considering that current free safety Mike Mitchell is not always the most disciplined, and probably more comfortable in the box, it figures that at some point he and Davis will swap positions.
10. This has a chance to be a terrific defensive line. Cameron Heyward is a shrewd technician. Stephon Tuitt plays with effort and athleticism. Javon Hargrave plays with equally impressive athleticism—which is rare in a 305-pound nose tackle.
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