The Pittsburgh Steelers have been torched by faster quarterbacks in recent seasons. The likes of Terrelle Pryor and Michael Vick have recently gotten the better of the Steelers' defense in games that Pittsburgh could have won in years past had they done a better job at keeping these quarterbacks contained.
This Sunday, the Steelers go up against the San Francisco 49ers and Colin Kaepernick. The last time Pittsburgh faced San Francisco they saw a very different team that had Alex Smith at quarterback, so we will not use that game for our preview this week. Instead, we look to the 49ers' victory on Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings.
Though Kaepernick did try some passes where he targeted receivers on deeper routes, all 17 of his completions on Monday night were in the short-medium range that were no deeper than 10 yards. The 49ers looked to rely on their ground game with Kaepernick supplementing a scrambling pass attack that made quick passes or utilized his mobility to buy time for receivers running crossing routes.
This play is a basic example of what San Francisco's passing scheme often employs: Kapernick rolls to his right with receiving options dragging across the field for him to target and a blocker/potential receiver to try to give him space or a dump-off.
Kapernick makes this throw for a first down with nobody in his face until it is too late. If the Steelers want to give him a hard time on the big passing downs, they should look to apply pressure from their left (Kaepernick's right) to make it more difficult for the 49ers' quarterback to feel comfortable rolling to his right and being able to process the defense. Forcing Kaepernick to run to his left would require him to use his mobility, but while he's moving he cannot make as well-prepared of a throw because he will have to adjust to get into a proper passing position, giving Pittsburgh more time to chase him as well as make a play on the eventual pass.
Here the Vikings manage to apply pressure to Kapernick's throwing side with one of their more athletic linebackers in Anthony Barr, essentially doing what we're suggesting the Steelers to plan for in order to make the play more difficult.
However this is where the Steelers' defensive discipline has to improve, in recent years we've seen several poor pursuit angles from our linebackers that have let quarterbacks escape with ease. Here you see a young Barr make a football mistake by targeting his pursuit angle on Kaepernick's front shoulder instead of his back shoulder. This allows Kaepernick to continue is rollout with a slight move that allows him to get outside of Barr and complete a short pass for a first down.
If Barr targets Kaepernick's back shoulder, he gives himself a better chance to make a play on Kaepernick or at least force him to make a move back inside and not convert the first down by completing the pass to his primary receiving option on the play.
If Pittsburgh can force Kapernick to progress through his reads past his first option on plays like these, it will give more time for a collective pass rush to get to Kaepernick and make his job that much more difficult on the big third down plays when the Steelers' defense will need to make stops.
Here the Vikings are able to apply pressure on both the left and right of Kaepernick but leave a huge hole in the middle for him to step up in the pocket and look downfield. While this is bound to happen on blitz packages like this, it may behoove Pittsburgh to keep a linebacker back to spy on Kaepernick and not allow him to create space for him to throw when he does stay in the pocket.
In the preseason we saw the Steelers employ a spy on Aaron Rodgers with Bud Dupree to prevent him from escaping a sack from James Harrison that resulted in a safety. A similar concept may be successful on more third and long situations where Kaepernick will not have the option to dink and dunk to receivers for 4-5 yards.
Pittsburgh will need to do a good job in containing Carlos Hyde and the 49ers' ground game, but if they can force Kaepernick to make not-so-easy decisions in tight situations that require him to make a play, this may be their best opportunity to force their first turnover of the 2015 season. With speedier linebackers in play such as Bud Dupree and Ryan Shazier, Keith Butler may have different schemes drawn up to contain Kaepernick than what we've seen in the preseason and week 1.