One of the Steelers biggest defensive weaknesses last year was being attacked over the middle of the field. Vince Williams and Jon Bostic were both limited defenders in coverage and opposing offenses had success attacking both LBs and rookie Safety Terrell Edmunds with TEs.
As Terrell Edmunds improved and L.J. Fort started taking more snaps from the ILBs and Morgan Burnett the targets to TEs decreased.
In the first 5 games opposing TEs were targeted 56 times for 524 yards, over 11 times per game. The rest of the season TEs would be targeted 55 times for 444 yards. The Steelers gave up 90+ yards to the opposing teams TEs 4 times, going 1-3 in those games. The only win was in Tampa Bay, when the defense gave up 106 yards and a TD to OJ Howard and Cameron Brate, but also intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick 3 times and scored a defensive TD in a 3-point win.
But as the defense slowed down the TE yardage by taking out run stopping LBs, teams started running on the Steelers more. The last 7 games of the year show really well that the Steelers couldn’t stop both TEs and the run game. From Week 10 on, the Steelers gave up 666 yards on the ground to any team not named the Raiders. That’s 111 yards per game. The other 10 games the Steelers gave up an average of 87.2 yards per game. At the same time, they held TEs to 116 yards total in those 6 games, less that 20 yards per game. And that includes Rob Gronkowski. In Oakland they ran for only 55 yards, but TE Jared Cook had 116 yards.
Over the entire season the defense proved it could not defend the run and TEs at the same time.
No small wonder then the Steelers signed Mark Barron and drafted Devin Bush. Two fast LBs that are much better in coverage than Jon Bostic, while being able to play the run better than the Safeties used in place of the LBs to try to improve coverage.
Why does all this matter for Preseason Week 1?
Enter the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, OJ Howard and Cameron Brate, who combined for 106 yards and a TD against the Steelers last season, and who now are coached by Bruce Arians and his offense that OJ Howard described as being very TE friendly.
Even better is the vanilla defense used in preseason games, which should give us some very clear examples of how well Devin Bush and Mark Barron can improve the defense’s ability to run defend and cover TEs in the same game.
That is a very important thing. Because last season the Steelers were 1-3 when opposing TE’s gained 90+ yards, and were 2-2-1 when opposing teams ran for over 100 yards. The Chiefs were the only game where both happened, which means the team went 3-4-1 when giving up 90+ yards to TEs or 100+ on the ground. When neither happened, when the defense held TEs to reasonable yards and didn’t give up 100 yards rushing, the Steelers were 6-2.