The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to 3-7 at the hands of their division rival, the Cincinnati Bengals. While the loss wasn’t exactly totally unexpected with the Bengals being favored despite being on the road, it was how they lost that's disheartening.
The Steelers defense has a particular weakness that’s become glaringly obvious to anyone studying them on a weekly basis, they can’t stop the pass.
Under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, the Steelers have shifted to a more man-heavy defense, one far different from his predecessors. Entering Week 11 with the Bengals, the Steelers were deploying man coverage on 40% of their defense this season, the third-highest rate across the league. This is a drastic jump over the 26% usage rate from just last season.
Under Austin, the Steelers have a fairly clear ideology, they want to get pressure on the quarterback with their front four and mix in man coverage looks whenever they can. So far this season, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan as Pittsburgh ranks 25th in EPA/play, and dropback EPA/play through the first couple months of the season.
The Steelers haven’t been able to generate pressure up front like we’re used to seeing from this group, ranking 30th in pressure rate so far this season. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt missing most of the season has certainly complicated matters. They were clearly planning on having a dominating pass rush, and that hasn’t come to fruition which has, in turn, exposed the real weakness of this Steelers' defense - the cornerback play.
With a lackluster pass rush and more man coverage responsibilities, the Steelers are asking more from their corners than they have in a long time. The results haven’t been pretty, to say the least, and the struggles have been magnified when facing top-end competition.
Here are some stat lines from notable WR1-level receiving threats that Pittsburgh’s seen this season:
Ja’Marr Chase: 10 catches, 129 yards, one touchdown
Amari Cooper: seven catches, 101 yards, one touchdown
Stefon Diggs: eight catches, 102 yards, one touchdown
A.J. Brown: six catches, 156 yards, three touchdowns
Tee Higgins: nine catches, 148 yards
Are you beginning to sense a theme here?
To be fair, common sense tells us that elite playmakers are going to find ways to make their impact over the duration of the game. However, as a defense, you must be capable of minimizing their effects on the game even if completely neutralizing them isn’t reasonable. When the above stat lines start becoming normal occurrences, it becomes clear that these battles aren’t all that competitive.
Cincinnati did exactly what other teams have done to the Steelers throughout the season, they hunted favorable matchups in the secondary. They lit up the scoreboard to the tune of 37 points while accumulating 346 passing yards on the day.
It was a particularly rough afternoon for slot cornerback Arthur Maulet. Cincinnati moved their weapons around, and Joe Burrow sought him out time after time again. Per Pro Football Focus, Maulet was on the field for 22 man coverage snaps with Burrow targeting him on nine of those, completing six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. The Bengals moved pieces around, putting both Higgins and Boyd in the slot at different times to take advantage of the matchup.
Maulet wasn't completely out of position on many of these reps either. It's just that he's limited from a size profile perspective, he loses at the catch point where receivers can just box him out like what happened on the touchdown throw to Trenton Irwan. Tyler Boyd dunked on him on a slot fade route for a 27-yard gain that got the Bengals out of their own end zone.
Levi Wallace was able to gather an interception off of a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage, but he was also taken advantage of, allowing a couple of explosive pass plays on his watch.
Tee Higgins beat Wallace rather easily on a go ball down the right sideline for a chunk play. Perhaps the most frustrating play of his day came in the fourth quarter as Trent Irwin caught an outbreaking route before making Wallace miss and turn upfield for a 32-yard gain.
Wallace had a breakout campaign in 2021 for the Buffalo Bills in their zone-heavy scheme but has been very hot and cold in coverage so far in his first season with the Steelers. On the plus side, he has been opportunistic, hauling in three interceptions, but he's also been responsible for coverage lapses, usually for longer gains and/or touchdowns.
Surprisingly, Cam Sutton has had arguably the best season of his career despite being someone who's not necessarily best suited for a man-heavy scheme. Ahkello Witherspoon has been both hurt and ineffective as he's still sidelined with a hamstring injury. The recently acquired William Jackson III is best suited for man coverage, but he's also still dealing with a back injury, and it's cloudy if or when we will see him suit up in the black and gold. Whenever that may be, his $12.75M cap hit of non-guaranteed money for next season means this is likely a short stay for this year only.
It's increasingly clear that the Steelers simply don't have the dudes necessary on the outside to play the style of ball that they want to play. It's not an Xs and Os thing, it's a matter of talent deficiency. Pittsburgh doesn't have the guys to match up with opposing number-one receivers which shouldn't be surprising when looking at their lack of investment in the position.
Sutton's the team's highest-paid corner, but he's the 38th highest-paid player at his position. With identical contracts, Wallace and Witherspoon come in tied for 50th at the position.
It's not like they've tried adding to the room via the NFL Draft either. The last time that the Steelers took a cornerback in the top two rounds was back in 2016 when they selected Artie Burns.
Burns was the first corner that the franchise had taken in the first round this millennium, a decision that didn't pay off whatsoever due to multiple factors. Many are aware of their less-than-stellar record when it comes to evaluating corners, but it's hard to hit on one when you don't even begin to try.
For Austin and Tomlin, the rest of this season needs to be about seeing which of these guys fits best with their approach heading into 2023. But it's absolutely imperative that they make a significant investment, whether that be through free agency, trade or the NFL Draft at the cornerback position. Simply put, it's a need that has gone unaddressed for far too long.
When building your roster out in the spring, it's important to keep in mind what pieces are needed to slow down your divisional opponents. If you expect to slow down the Ja'Marr Chases of the world, new general manager Omar Khan should be doing everything in his power to acquire someone capable of holding their own on an island against elite receivers.
The Steelers' chances at returning to AFC North glory in 2023 or anytime in the immediate future just might depend on it.
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