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Has the Steelers’ defense become dangerously predictable?

When your opponent knows what you’re going to do just as easily as you do, your matchup has failed before it begins

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

There are many famous quotes when it comes to football. If you are willing to take the time, you can find a great quote for almost any football situation via the Internet. One such quote I have heard quite often deals with scheming versus players making plays. It goes as follows:

“It’s less about the X’s and O’s and more about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s.”

The heart of this argument is scheme can only get a team so far. Ultimately, it comes down to players making plays and winning individual matchups. I could get completely behind this quote, if it is in fact what the author meant.

What I don’t believe this quote meant to say was players winning individual matchups can overcome a bad scheme. Unfortunately, I believe this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been facing recently, especially in the second half of games.

In looking at the Steelers 2019 defense, it is riddled with first-round draft picks. The only players who are logging significant snaps who were not first-round selections are Stephon Tuitt (2nd), Javon Hargrave (3rd), Vince Williams (6th), Steven Nelson (3rd), and Mike Hilton (undrafted). Whether or not you believe all of the first-round selections were worthy of their draft status, it is undeniable that the Steelers have done their best acquiring talent (at least when it comes to draft pedigree) on the defensive side of the ball. Then why are the Steelers sometimes so easily picked apart on defense?

The easiest answer to this question is that players are not being put in a position to make plays and be successful. A great example of this comes from the 2018 season when the Steelers were hosting the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13. After leading 23-7 at halftime, the Steelers ended up losing on the last minute field goal 33-30. Although there were numerous officiating blunders in this game, one of the most defining moments came late in the fourth quarter. In a tie game and the Chargers just out of field-goal range on third and four, the Steelers defense ended up matching up middle linebacker Jon Bostic (who is a known liability in pass coverage) on Keenan Allen (the Chargers best receiver). It made for an easy conversion which led to the game-winning field goal.

The terrible decision to have Bostic on the field in an obvious passing situation where defensive coordinator Keith Butler claimed he believed they would run the ball was not the only issue. After the game, Philip Rivers answered questions about the team’s big comeback. He was asked about the Steelers defense and what was different throughout the game. What was his answer?

“They didn’t adjust.”

So the Steelers blow a 16-point lead by giving up 26 points in the second half all because they refused to do things any different than what they had already showed. If the Chargers put a certain personal group on the field and lined up in a certain way, they knew they would get the matchups they wanted because the Steelers refused to do anything significantly different. Philip Rivers had to be completely shocked when, with less than two minutes left in the game, he could get their best receiver on the Steelers worst pass defender just by setting up in the formation they thought would get the matchup. It should never be this way. The Steelers should have been ready to not allow this particular matchup to take place.

Fast forward to 2019 and the story still appears to be the same. The Steelers are basically letting teams know exactly how they’re going to play them. It might take a while for their opponent to figure it out exactly, but they stick with it the entire game even when it stops working. Do they occasionally throw in a wrinkle? Sure. They love blitzing Mike Hilton off the corner. But they do it the same way almost every time. They try to disguise it by keeping the safety deep because if he would cheat up it would tip off the blitz. But in doing so, they often leave a wide-open receiver as a hot read. That’s about it. It’s become a reactionary defense that any offense can scheme in order to exploit the matchup they want.

To bring it back to the “X’s and O’s versus Jimmy’s and Joe’s” analogy, your “Jimmy’s” can be much better than their “Joe’s.” But if they can get their strongest “Joe” matched up on your weakest “Jimmy” and you won’t change anything to fix it, the “Joe’s” are going to win most of the time. End of story.

Last week, the Steelers gave up 21 points in the second half to lose 24–20 against the San Francisco 49ers. Was part of the problem the defense was on the field the whole game? Yes. Was the other part of the problem the Steelers defense didn’t counter-adjust to the 49ers adjustments? It very well could be.

At this point, I’m not sure who’s in charge of the Steelers defense. Is it Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, or Teryl Austin? I’m not even sure they know. And I’m not saying that it’s all on whoever would be calling the plays. But the Steelers need to be prepared for other teams adjusting to their defensive scheme to exploit matchups.

The Steelers can collect all the best “Jimmy’s” they can in order to get their defense back on track. But until they get the right “X” in a good position to succeed against the right ‘O,” it may not make a difference.