Good teams have suffered ugly Week 1 defeats before. In 2003, the Super Bowl-bound Patriots opened with a 31–0 loss at Buffalo. The 1993 Cowboys lost 35–16 to Washington. The 2017 Patriots lost 42-27 to the Chiefs at home in the NFL’s season opener on Thursday night.
It’s wise to remember games like these before sounding any alarms about a perennial playoff contender like the Steelers, who last Sunday had their pants handed to them by the most recent iteration of the Defending Champion Patriots. Still, it wasn’t just that the Steelers lost, it was the way they lost. The 33-3 thumping did not stem from turnovers and mistakes. The Patriots simply lined up and beat them.
Recall that in the 2016 AFC Championship Game, New England embarrassed a proud Steelers defense by spreading out and throwing inside to wide receivers against overmatched zone linebackers. Walking off the field after that game, head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler had a conversation about how it was time for their franchise’s historically zone-based defense to play more man coverage. They wouldn’t overhaul the defensive scheme, but rather, expand it.
This idea received a boost in 2017 when Joe Haden, a longtime Tomlin favorite, was cut by the Browns and fell into the Steelers’ lap days before the season opener. Though no longer a shutdown corner, Haden still brought veritable talent to a position that the Steelers had spent just one first-round pick on since 1998 (2016 bust Artie Burns). With Haden’s arrival came a slight uptick in man coverage, including more man-to-man principles out of zone structures and blitzes, which continued into 2018 after the Steelers saw ’16 second-round safety Sean Davis develop into a quality centerfielder and spent a late first-round pick on strong safety Terrell Edmunds.
To be clear, the Steelers were still predominantly a zone defense, even with a more talented secondary, but the team now felt that it had more answers outside when it needed to match up against a difficult offense like the Patriots. But inside, Ryan Shazier’s devastating back injury in December 2017 deprived the team of linebackers who could run. That’s a problem, especially in man-to-man, as offenses have gotten craftier in how they deploy tight ends and tailbacks through the air.
After losing 45–42 in the divisional round of the playoffs to Jacksonville in the 2017 season and missing the postseason altogether last year, the Steelers did two atypical things this offseason. First, the team signed a starter early in free agency—Rams linebacker Mark Barron, a former safety whom the team figured could match up in coverage. Second, they shipped their 2019 first-rounder, ’19 second-rounder and ’20 third-rounder to Denver to move up 10 spots in the draft to get Michigan three-down linebacker Devin Bush at No. 10 in the NFL draft. It was the first time since getting Santonio in 2006 that the Steelers had traded up in the first round. The moves gave the Steelers two players who they believe are two quality coverage linebackers.
However, neither Barron nor Bush looked the part on Sunday night. Along with base linebacker Vince Williams, they were vulnerable to New England’s patented bang-bang play-action. And, in straight man coverage (which Pittsburgh featured a lot), Barron could not stay with shifty receiving back James White, while Bush endured ups and downs against Rex Burkhead. Their struggles, if not corrected, will serve as a harbinger for this defense’s underachievement.
Shoddy linebacking coverage won’t fell this team every week. This week against Seattle, for example, the Steelers will not face a dynamic receiving back. And with Tevin Coleman’s high ankle sprain, they might not see one the following week at San Francisco, either. But they will in Week 4 against Cincinnati (Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard). They also see Austin Ekeler and the Chargers in Week 6, Indy’s Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines in Week 9, the Bengals again in Week 12 and the Browns, with underrated pass-catching back Nick Chubb, in Weeks 11 and 13. There’s Arizona’s David Johnson in Week 14, and in Week 16, a certain Jets running back who this team knows well. And, of course, if the Steelers want to get to where they hope to go, they likely must get past the Patriots in the playoffs. Some AFC contenders privately admit to building parts of their team specifically with beating New England in mind; New England’s receiving backs may have influenced Pittsburgh’s moves to get Barron and Bush.
Let’s not forget, the Steelers DID beat the Patriots in Week 15 last season, primarily with disguised two-deep zone coverages—not man-to-man. But their ability to dabble in man coverage helped lend dimension—and therefore potency—to those disguises. The 17-10 game score makes it an outlier; in the other Patriot-Steeler showdowns since 2010, New England has averaged nearly 33 points an outing. Beating Tom Brady in January will require at least 30 points.
Which brings us to Pittsburgh’s second problem: the wide receiver situation. Antonio Brown’s absence was stark on Sunday night. JuJu Smith-Schuster isn’t the concern. Yes, he was limited to six mostly harmless catches in his first game as the team’s true No. 1, but he may not face a more physical or capable corner than Stephon Gilmore all year. True, Smith-Schuster will battle more double-teams by defenses that don’t have a quasi-shutdown corner like Gilmore, but he saw more of those than people realize last season, when he led the Steelers with 111 catches and 1,426 yards.
The real problem is the group behind Smith-Schuster. A strangely passionate collection of Steelers fans sounded off when a certain analyst tweeted this back in June:
But last Sunday night, this tweet looked too kind, if anything, as Moncrief continued to struggle on semi-contested catches. When privately discussing the former Colt/Jaguar, some NFL coaches whisper the word “soft.” Most likely, Pittsburgh’s passing game will come down to whether 2018 second-round receiver James Washington can fully elevate to the No. 2 job, with shifty ex-Cowboy Ryan Switzer operating fulltime in the slot and third-round rookie Diontae Johnson rotating in at various positions. Washington has teased vertical prowess, but it will take at least a few weeks of steady big play production to banish memories of his depressing rookie season.
Pittsburgh’s scheme isn’t necessarily set up to help this callow receiving corps. No team spreads out into empty formations more, and many of the routes from here are isolated, with receivers expected to win—and quickly—one-on-one. The iso routes play to Ben Roethlisberger’s paradoxical proclivity for both getting the ball out immediately and extending plays, and the approach shined when built around a superstar like Antonio Brown. But if you’re a young struggling receiver, spread iso routes can be burdensome because so often finding your rhythm or regaining confidence simply comes down to whether you can get yourself open. Shake your slump by playing better, in other words.
Maybe Pittsburgh’s young receivers can ascend. But against a stingy veteran Patriots secondary, they were feckless. A few more outings like that and the conversation shifts to whether this team can prosper by relying on its ground game and defense. (And a related conversation: can any NFL team today TRULY prosper this way?)
Some perspective: 15 games to go, none as challenging as at New England. The Steelers have time to iron out the wrinkles. But opponents now also have an idea of how to challenge them on both sides of the ball: attack the linebackers in coverage and make the receivers defeat man-to-man.
GIDDY ABOUT BALTIMORE’S PASSING GAME…?
True, a blowout victory over the not-tanking-but-aggressively-rebuilding Dolphins (whose rebuild right now is in the “tear-down” stage) doesn’t make you a world beater, but there were three things from Week 1 that really bode well for the Ravens moving forward:
1. Lamar Jackson’s comfort. He worked on his mechanics this summer and appears to have found himself as a true wrist-flicking thrower. In fact, probably no NFL passer (save for Patrick Mahomes on some of his Houdini plays) puts less arm into his throwing motion. Jackson is also playing for a QB coach, James Urban, who has a gift for explaining reads in clear, user-friendly terms.
2. Mark Andrews. The 2018 third-round pick from Oklahoma can soon be a top-10 tight end, if he isn’t already. Long and athletic, Andrews can adjust to bad balls, run routes from a detached alignment and operate down the seams.
3. Hollywood Brown. The first-round rookie receiver and former Oklahoma teammate of Andrews doesn’t just have blazing speed but also the ability to control it. After burning the Dolphins for 47- and 83-yard touchdowns, Brown showed he can separate quickly with a tight throttle down and north-south change of direction. Given this and how his speed will scare defenders into backing off, his hook and curl routes could be lucrative.
NEW ENGLAND'S NEW LOOK
In SI’s Patriots preview, we speculated that Rex Burkhead would indirectly replace Rob Gronkowski in New England’s passing offense. Burkhead would not fill Gronk’s exact role, of course, but with the future Hall of Famer’s retirement leaving the Patriots thin at tight end, the schematic flexibility that Gronk provided must now come from another position. The guess was Burkhead, New England’s most talented all-around back, would get more snaps, pairing his flexibility with James White’s in an unconventional three-receiver, two-back set. Indeed, this appears to be New England’s direction. In Week 1, Burkhead and White got getting 18 snaps on the field together. On those snaps, Burkhead touched the ball four times for 36 yards, while White handled it once for 10 yards.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Chargers @ Lions
With no Derwin James, the Chargers might struggle against first-round rookie T.J. Hockenson, who against Arizona set a tight end record with 131 yards in his NFL debut. Hockenson simply looks the part. Stylistically—just STYLISTICALLY at this point—he is a quicker, smoother, lither version of Gronkowski in Detroit’s revamped offense.
Eagles @ Falcons;
To get Atlanta out of its comfortable Cover 3, the Eagles will align DeSean Jackson inside out of trips formations, threatening zone coverage linebackers with his vertical speed. And if—or once—the Falcons shift into more man coverage, we’ll see Philly’s bevy of pick and mesh routes involving receivers inside.
Cowboys @ Redskins
Speaking of linebackers defending the pass in Cover 3… last year when hosting the Cowboys, Jay Gruden’s Redskins did an excellent job building later-in-the-down pass opportunities underneath on designs that punished linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith for honoring their coverage responsibilities. Both are fast young ‘backers who are still learning when a situation demands they play a beat slower.
This week, a proposal: Let’s replace the term “second cousin” and especially “cousin once removed” (who can even keep the difference straight?) with individual words. My cousin’s son isn’t my “second cousin,” but rather, my nougissafe. Or whatever word, it doesn’t matter. This particular word is a clunky portmanteau of nephew (n), cousin (ou) and the acronym gissafe: guy I sometimes see at family events. Any word will do because it can’t get much lazier or more confusing than “second cousin.”
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