The Steelers play the Falcons on Sunday, which isn’t great for those of us who predicted those teams would also play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. The face-off means one of those teams will enter Week 6 with just one win. In the NFL’s modern era, only 12 teams have made the playoffs after winning just one of their first five games, and only two of those teams—the ’76 Steelers and ’02 Titans—made it past the divisional round.
Bad defense is behind these clubs’ disappointing starts. Let’s examine the problems and, more importantly, the solutions.
The problem: Everyone cites the absence of linebacker Ryan Shazier, and certainly, this defense is worse without him. But many of the post-Shazier issues that felled this club late last season have been ameliorated by the surprisingly stellar play of free agent pickup Jon Bostic. The well-traveled former second-round pick has been decisive in run defense and, just like he was as a Colt last year, alert in zone coverage. You could even say that the problem is not Bostic, but everyone around him.
It starts with a pass defense that ranks 29th, having given up 18 completions of 20 yards or more—sixth most in the league—and twelve of those have come against single-high safety coverage. That’s where the Steelers employ many of their trademark matchup-zone coverages. But with shoddy right corner play (2016 first-rounder Artie Burns is rotating with journeyman backup Coty Sensabaugh, which says everything), and questions in the slot (Mike Hilton has missed time lately with an elbow injury), Pittsburgh is getting killed on vertical routes. Offenses spread out, widening the zone defenders so much that they have to almost play it like man-to-man. Speed receivers are running by those impromptu man defenders.
Opponents would have to cut down on vertical throws if Pittsburgh’s pass rush were more destructive. Moving T.J. Watt to the left edge and Bud Dupree to the right was sensible for both players, but neither has been an everydown force. Pittsburgh’s uniquely athletic defensive linemen—Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave—have also been quiet.
The solution: It’s already started to unfold. The Steelers clearly made a halftime adjustment against the Ravens on Sunday night, shifting to safe two-deep coverages. (Did that stem from the “animated conversation” that NBC’s Michelle Tafoya reported between Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler on their way into the locker room?) The two-deep coverages put a lid on Baltimore’s explosive downfield passes, but it also allowed Joe Flacco to dink and dunk for drives of 12, 11 and 14 plays that resulted in field goals. Baltimore controlled the ball for 21 1/2 minutes in the second half.
If the pass rush isn’t getting home, Butler must go back to blitzing. That would be a dilemma for most defenses, as blitzing would also mean returning to the single-high, one-on-one coverages that Steelers opponents have exploited. But Butler has options. In 2015, he shook opposing offenses with a bevy of two-deep blitzes, which are exceedingly rare. To do this, he’d bring an edge blitz on the side of the opponent’s top receiver and then roll a trap coverage behind the blitz. It left one-on-one coverage on the back side, but it punished the quarterback for doing what he’s programmed to do: throw quickly in the face of the blitz. Butler could also consider deploying more of his traditional blitzes and rolling the deep safety to the right, leaving left corner Joe Haden on an island. That’s a lot to ask of any corner, but Haden has been one of the league’s better downfield defenders.
The other thing Butler could do is get even more creative with his defensive line, including on running downs. In the past, we’ve seen a lot of stunts and twists from the Steelers up front. Heyward and Tuitt are dynamic here, but what made the tactics special was Hargrave, who is exceptionally balletic for a 305-pounder. Not many teams can use their nose tackle like this, and so offenses are less prepared for it. The only downside is this approach is high-risk, high-reward—to minimize the risk, you need a fast linebacker who can fill the creases that open when the stunt or twist doesn’t work. This is where Shazier’s absence stands out. Still, with how efficiently Bostic is playing, more stunting and twisting is worth a shot.
The problem: In a nutshell? The entire back middle of the defense is out injured. Safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are done for the season, and middle linebacker Deion Jones is gone until at least November. Since the league won’t postpone any games, the Falcons must keep playing, bad luck and all, adnd the team elected to promote and relocate players from within rather than sign outside help. Nickel slot corner Brian Poole is now a nickel safety, Damontae Kazee is now an everydown free safety, and developmental second-round rookie corner Isaiah Oliver is now a No. 3 corner. (He’s already had his Welcome to the NFL Moment: on A.J. Green’s game-winning touchdown last Sunday, Oliver failed to sink back far enough in Cover 2, instead honoring the tailback’s route in the flat. In some scenarios that wouldn’t be WRONG, but in this one—with the Bengals down five, waning seconds, out of timeouts—it most certainly was.)
At linebacker, the hope is that speedy Duke Riley can step up. The second-year pro struggled in zone awareness in Weeks 2 and 3 but was better in Week 4, perhaps in part because the Falcons played more man-to-man.
The solution: Keep playing that man-to-man—along with Dan Quinn’s Seahawks style Cover 3, it comprises Atlanta’s defensive identity. It’s a simple identity, and one Atlanta must maintain. With speed at linebacker and safety, the Falcons try to run with receivers and/or keep the action in front of them and rally to the ball.
The alternative is to blitz, which Quinn and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel have toyed with, both out of man and zone coverage. But after the Bengals torched them on these in the first half last Sunday, the two coaches could soon decide it’s not worth expanding their scheme with so many young players. The beauty of a simple defensive scheme is you getter better as the season goes on. Not only do you become more comfortable with your assignments, but you see offenses every week try to attack it in the same way. You learn to anticipate those attacks.
The real key is Atlanta’s pass rush—it must be more imposing. Second-year man Takk McKinley shows signs of greatness as a speed-to-power bull-rusher. Fellow former first-round end Vic Beasley is strictly a speed rusher, but that can be enough if the guys around him play well. One of those guys is Grady Jarrett, a premier defensive tackle thanks to his quickness and leverage. He has flashed every week on film but not quite as often as the Falcons need. Overall, there’s reason for optimism with this pass rush and, therefore, this defense. It still has the requisite speed and talent, and its youth suggests improvement could be on the horizon.
Armstead has long been regarded as one of the league’s most athletic blockers, and he’s now become one of the mechanically soundest, too. Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk has also played well. Sturdy offensive tackle play is huge in a Saints system that aims to get all five eligible receivers out in routes.
MAXX WILLIAMS FORMATION
Many people were excited to see the Ravens tight end lining up off the ball in the left guard spot and running what became an uncovered route for an easy 22-yard gain Sunday night at Pittsburgh. I understand the novelty is alluring, and it’s clever coaching by offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. But the NFL should regulate this out of the game. Hiding eligible receivers among offensive linemen is too advantageous for the offense (especially with all the no-huddle in today’s game) and, more importantly, it makes for bad television. Yes, it’s fun the first time, when NBC shows a dozen replays and announcers can say they’ve never seen that before. But after a while, if the tactic picks up, the replays would stop, and fans would grow frustrated being unable to easily identify eligible receivers prior to the snap. Football is already a complex, fast game. The NFL should rule that the two players aligned immediately on both sides of the center are automatically ineligible. Force offenses to formation themselves creatively with players that viewers can actually spot.
WHY CARDINALS FANS CAN BE EXCITED
It’s not reflected in his stats—180 yards passing, one touchdown—but Josh Rosen’s NFL debut against Seattle was spectacular. The first-round rookie quarterback showed remarkable touch on outside throws and firm velocity on inside throws. Almost every ball showcased precision accuracy. Arizona’s receivers simply had a lot of drops. Based on his rhythmic style and the types of routes his system featured at UCLA, Rosen appeared to be, by far, the most pro ready quarterback entering this draft. That remains true a quarter into the season.
NON-FOOTBALL ITEM ON MY MIND
Last week I wrote an honest plea asking baseball fans to explain what’s behind their sport’s bizarre tradition of locker room champagne celebrations for mere playoff series wins. Every other sport saves the cork-popping for at least a conference title—and usually, a league title. Here are some of the best responses I received.
Most Representative of the Responses
It’s a looooong season, these guys have played a ton of games by the time they clinch the playoffs. While the NBA plays a bunch of games too, the baseball season has nearly twice as many games (162 vs 82), and literally half of the NBA qualifies for the playoffs (16/30), as opposed to only 8 of the 32 MLB teams, so it’s significantly more exclusive. —Justin Hyche
It is a 162-game marathon of a season, the guys get closer than any other locker room will get and it’s truly a sport where two hot pitchers at the right time of the year can win you a Series. Like hockey with a hot goaltender, any team has a legitimate chance at winning it all if they make the playoffs. —Darin McCann
When you play 162 games in about a six-month period, spending half the time flying and traveling all across the country, and you win a spot at the playoffs? Well you [freaking] celebrate. Baseball is an endurance test like no other. Just ask MLB players how long they are apart from their families during the year, and how much time they spend with teammates in the year. —Harry
I think it has a bit to do with the generation that is now playing baseball. They come from the “everyone gets a trophy” group, and this seems normal to them. Playoffs are a gun-to-the-head sudden death kind of experience. Perhaps the better question is why other sports don’t make a bigger deal of avoiding an untimely end to their season? —Michael Goolsby
Most Soberingly Reasonable
I can’t understand why a sudden-death, one-game wild-card playoff, with the potential need to burn your two best starters, (like my team, the Diamondbacks, did last year) in order to advance to play a road-heavy series against a well-rested No. 1, seed merits a celebration rather than condolences. —John Moshier
I’m a big baseball fan who hates all the celebrating. Seems childish and contrived, like ribbons for everyone. One winner celebrates, the rest wait till next year. —Jim Clark
You’re right, baseball celebrations have gone too far over the top. I remember the days of four division winners, two league champions and of course a World Series champion. Back then, it really mattered to win your division because there was no playoffs without doing it. The advent of re-alignment, wild cards and inter-league play has certainly changed what it once meant to achieve playoff status in baseball. The most ANNOYING celebration is watching the winner of the new play-in wild-card games bathe themselves in more bubbly a day or two after showering themselves for clinching a wild-card spot. It’s grown tiresome and even wasteful. —Mike