Concerns in Pittsburgh

In case you were wondering, the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t always looked like this.  For the first five games of the season, their re-imagined offense couldn’t have worked better.  They averaged 31.2 points per game – never scoring fewer than 26 in any game – and their offense was spectacularly balanced.  While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was completing 69.1% of his passes with an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 109.1 passer rating, the running game was adding an average of 136.8 yards a game (4.3 per carry) and 7 touchdowns of its own.

Since then – by degrees – the offensive performances have regressed to a place that Pittsburgh hopes is subnormal.

Beginning with their Week Seven victory over Tennessee, the Steeler running game dried up.  Over their last eight games, the Steelers have abruptly dropped to 59.3 yards a game and just 3.0 yards per rush.  But even then the passing game kept Pittsburgh afloat.  Pittsburgh continued to win and to score – 28.4 points a game even without the running attack – as their record climbed to 10-0.  They still hadn’t been held under 24 points in a game.

Since then, the offense has taken another deep step backward, scoring a total of 51 points over its last three games – the last two of them losses.

In the first two of those games, Pittsburgh was matched against two of the premier defenses in the league (Baltimore and Washington).  During their first loss of the season against Washington, the Pittsburgh running game hit rock bottom – 21 yards on 14 carries.

The disappointment against the Football Team would be followed by a prime time game – a Sunday night affair against the Buffalo Bills.  For all of the fact that Buffalo carried a 9-3 record into the contest, this game looked to be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Pittsburgh offense.  Buffalo was allowing 25.5 points a game, and the weakest part of the their defense was the run defense, which was allowing 126 rushing yards a game, and the 4.7 yards per carry they were allowing was the fifth highest in football.

Buffalo had become one of football’s better offensive teams (scoring 27.75 points a game and ranking third in passing yardage), but defensively, they seemed like a team that Pittsburgh could re-set itself against.

None of this, of course, came about.

In the aftermath of Buffalo’s 26-15 conquest (gamebook) (summary) all there was for the Steelers was more frustration and more than a few questions, as an embattled Buffalo defense made a few statements of its own.

Plan of Attack

While the numbers don’t suggest it, Pittsburgh truly did try to run the ball against the Bills.  That they finished with only 17 attempts was due to two factors.

First, of course, was that the running attack never bore fruit.  Pittsburgh managed just 47 yards on those rushes (2.8 per attempt) with no attempt exceeding 7 yards.

Even then, I believe the Steelers would have kept trying were it not for their spectacular failures on third down.  If you are going to keep trying to run the ball, then you have to convert your third downs – and Pittsburgh could not.  Entering the day ranked seventh in the league in third-down conversions (45.5%) – and facing a Buffalo defense ranked twenty-fourth in allowing third-down conversions (44.0%), Pittsburgh converted on just 1 of their 10 opportunities – almost all of them very manageable.  The Steelers faced third-and-nine twice and third-and-seven once.  All the others were six yards or less.  Pittsburgh finished the contest with 7 three-and-outs in 12 possessions (if you don’t count the end of the first half).  Roethlisberger was 1 for 9 for 13 yards and a sack on this down.

This speaks directly to Buffalo’s approach to Pittsburgh’s lightning-fast short passing game.

Here, I looked at the new-look approach in Pittsburgh that tries to get the ball out of Ben’s hands in under two seconds.  This was the focus of Buffalo’s game plan – to take away all of the quick-opening routes that make this approach possible.

The Bills mixed a lot of coverages, always with a focus on the easy, underneath routes.  On the first third-down of the game, the Bills played man but dropped the defensive ends into the short middle zones.  With 10:06 left in the third quarter, and Pittsburgh facing third-and-nine, the Bills played zone, but had middle-linebacker Tremaine Edmunds chase JuJu Smith-Schuster’s shallow cross.  When they played zone, they did so with laudable discipline.  But in third down, they mostly played tight, suffocating man coverage.

No one defensive back followed any particular receiver.  Cornerback Tre’Davious White played a lot of what I call Deion coverage.  The rest of the defense would play whatever they were going to play.  White would play man against one receiver. (Deion coverage is so named for the great Deion Sanders who played this coverage during his time in San Francisco.)  Whenever the Steelers would line up in four receiver sets, with three receivers to one side, White would take the receiver on the single receiver side and play man against him.  This was even true when Pittsburgh put tight end Eric Ebron on the single receiver side and had all of the receivers on the other side.

The pressure piece of the defensive plan came principally from two sources – whoever was lined up over Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Milano.

Villanueva struggled notably keeping the ends – mostly Mario Addison – from going around him.  Milano showed surprising passion when he joined the rush.  Buffalo didn’t send him that often, but every time they did he seemed to impact the play.

It all added up to Pittsburgh’s worst offensive game of the season by points scored, and second worst by yardage.  (Their 224 yards of total offense being only 3 yards better than their Week Eight win in Baltimore.)  In addition to an engulfed running attack, Roethlisberger threw for just 187 yards while completing a season-low 56.8% of his passes (21 of 37).  He threw multiple interceptions for only the second time this season.  He was sacked for the first time in six games, averaged just 5.05 per pass attempt (his lowest figure of the season) and finished with his worst passer rating of 2020 (65.9).

Buffalo couldn’t have asked for any more from its defense.

The Bills’ Offense Adjusts

For the first thirty minutes, the Pittsburgh defense returned the favor in kind against the Buffalo offense.  If the Steeler running attack was moribund, the Buffalo ground game was even more non-existent.  The Bills ran just 7 times in the first half for just 34 yards.  If Ben Roethlisberger’s passing attack was stuck in neutral, Josh Allen’s passing attack was all but stopped (if not quite in reverse).

The Steeler plan for Allen and the Bills’ passing attack was pressure and lots of it.  Already the third-most blitz-happy team in football (they came into the game blitzing 40.2% of the time), Pittsburgh upped the ante against Buffalo, bringing at least one extra rusher on 58.7% of Josh’s drop-backs.  The first-half results were devastating.  Allen went into the locker room having completed 10 of 23 passes (43.5%) for a miniscule 76 yards (3.30 yards per attempt).  Stir in no touchdown passes and 1 interception, and that adds up to a 34.0 rating.

The dominant Buffalo defense held Pittsburgh to an anemic 143 yards of total offense through two quarters.  The equally dominant Pittsburgh defense reduced the Bills to an anorexic 102 yards of total offense.  That Buffalo led at the half 9-7 was due only to the fact that Buffalo cornerback Taron Johnson returned one of Roethlisberger’s interceptions 51 yards for a touchdown.

But while Pittsburgh never could solve Buffalo’s defensive scheme, the Bills were able to make the necessary adjustments at halftime, refocusing on the running game and providing Allen with more protection (including double-teams on disruptive defensive lineman Cameron Heyward).  The difference was enormous.

Buffalo ran the ball 20 times in the second half and, consequently controlled the ball for 21:40 of the final 30 minutes.  With the blitz slowed enough for Allen stand in the pocket and find a receiver, Josh completed 14 of his final 20 passes for 162 yards.  He also threw the two decisive touchdown passes.  Buffalo outgained the Steelers 232 to 81 over the final two quarters.

On To the Playoffs

Earlier this evening, Buffalo claimed the AFC Eastern Division title as they routed the Denver Broncos 48-19.  I had thought that once they reached this part of their season, the Bills would begin to struggle.  Up until they beat San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, their defining moment was the Hail Mary pass that cost them a seemingly sure victory over Arizona.  I didn’t expect them to beat either the 49ers or the Steelers.

Regardless, Buffalo has exceeded my expectations and has punched its ticket to the dance.  The Miami Dolphins will now have to right their ship quickly to fend off the Browns for the last AFC playoff spot.

As for the Bills themselves, even after this win and the beating they’ve just given the Broncos, I don’t really believe in them just yet.  Especially that defense.  There are only three other teams this season that Buffalo has held below 20 points – the Jets twice, the Chargers and tonight the Broncos.  My gut feeling is that last Sunday night’s victory had more to do with Pittsburgh’s struggles than Buffalo’s prowess.

I want to see the Bills’ defense hold up against one of the better running teams in the league – a matchup that may not come until the playoffs.

Other AFC Playoff Ramifications

With the loss, the Steelers are now in trail position behind the Chiefs for the top seed in the conference.  Waiting for someone to beat the Chiefs isn’t the most encouraging of situations.

Shifting NFC Playoff Picture

For the third time in two weeks an upset authored by a team from the NFC East has scrambled the playoff picture.  In Week Thirteen the New York Giants upset the Seattle Seahawks to threaten their hold on the NFC West.  Later that week, Washington handed Pittsburgh its first loss – beginning the process that has knocked them out of the top seed in the AFC (for the moment, anyway).

Then, in Week Fourteen the Philadelphia Eagles shuffled the NFC picture by knocking off top-seeded New Orleans.  Green Bay now holds the inside track to the top seed in that conference, and the bye that goes with it.

Meanwhile, Washington won again, and is starting to look like they are the class of the NFC East.  Moreover, the Football Team, now 6-7, closes its season with winnable games against the Panthers and the Eagles – meaning they have a legitimate shot at taking an 8-8 record into the playoffs.  Until recently, I think everyone was resigned to the likelihood that the NFC East Champ would go to the playoffs with a sub-.500 record.

Finally, I’ve been re-thinking the NFC West recently – especially the Seahawks.  Even though they are only 3-2 over their last five, there are signs that things are starting to come together in the Emerald City in two very important areas.

First, the running attack seems to be back – helped enormously by the return to health of feature back Chris Carson.  Over the last five games, Seattle has averaged 127.8 rushing yards a game.  They are gaining 4.5 yards per carry in those games.  Carson hasn’t resumed a full workload yet – he hasn’t carried more than 13 times in any of the three games since his return.  But he was over 60 rushing yards in each of the last two, and is averaging 5.5 yards a carry since his return.

The other improving area is the defense.

A liability for most of the season, the Seahawk defense looks like they are starting to figure things out.  They have allowed a total of 37 points over their last three games, holding all of those opponents to less than 300 yards.  Now, none of those teams boast much of an offense (they were the Eagles, Giants and Jets), so that gives me a little pause.  But I never felt that the Seattle defense was really as bad as they’ve played for most of the year – and I always expected that their running game would be more impactful than it’s been.

In short, even though the competition has been a bit weak, this is the Seattle team I thought we’d see all season.  They have the pivotal Week 16 matchup against the Rams at home, and for the moment that is enough for me to shift them back to being the favorites in their division and claiming the third seed (behind Green Bay and New Orleans) – with the Rams probably sliding to the fifth seed.

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