Getting off to a fast start is important in the NFL. How important? Since 1990, teams that started the season 2-0 made the playoffs 63% of the time while teams that started 3-0 qualified at a 76% clip. Conversely, teams opening 0-2 made the post-season just 12% of the time while teams that started 0-3 were essentially eliminated.
The Steelers started 2-0 three times in the previous decade: 2010, 2016 and 2017. Each time they went on to win the AFC North and qualify for the playoffs. The 2010 and 2016 teams made it to the AFC championship game and the 2010 squad advanced to the Super Bowl. A fast start is significant, then, with both league and team history showing it to be a harbinger of success.
So, when the Steelers’ 2020 schedule came out last week, I immediately looked for their opening opponents. What I found caused me to channel my inner Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” A devious grin crept across my face while I drummed my fingers together and muttered, “Excellent.”
At the Giants and home versus Denver.
The Giants were 4-12 last year while the Broncos went 7-9. Their 11 combined wins represent the lowest victory total from the previous season of the Steelers first two opponents since they opened 2008 against the Texans (8-8) and Browns (4-12). Playing teams that were bad the previous year does not automatically translate to success, of course. Teams can improve significantly from one season to another and, as most fans understand, the Steelers have not been immune to playing poorly against weaker competition in the Mike Tomlin era. Still, the Giants and Broncos represent a fraction of the challenge that was last season’s New England-Seattle opening slate. The Steelers will need to play well to start 2-0 in 2020. Unlike last season, they will not have to be perfect.
Nor should we expect them to be. Ben Roethlisberger will probably need some time to shake off the rust of his lost 2019 campaign. The Steelers are incorporating several newcomers into the offense as well, including free agent signees Eric Ebron and Stephen Wisniewski and top draft pick Chase Claypool. Until the offense comes together, the Steelers should ride their highly-ranked defense. That unit finished in the top 5 in the league in most meaningful categories in 2019 and returns largely intact. Better yet, the quarterbacks the Steelers face in their first two contests, New York’s Daniel Jones and Denver’s Drew Lock, are a far cry from the Tom Brady-Russell Wilson duo the Steelers opened against last season. With the Giants and Broncos up first, the defense should put the Steelers in position for that coveted 2-0 start.
We as fans know plenty about Brady and Wilson. What about Jones and Lock, though? What do they do well? Where do they struggle? And how might Keith Butler and the defensive staff attack the two young signal-callers? Let’s take a look.
Jones and Lock are each entering their second seasons and followed similar paths as rookies. Both supplanted veteran quarterbacks in mid-season to assume the starting job. Jones took over for Eli Manning in New York in week three while Lock succeeded Joe Flacco in Denver in week twelve.
Jones won his first two starts before dropping nine straight. He finished 4-10 as a starter. Lock was better, going 4-1 in his five starts, although his final QBR of 48.2 was 25th in the league and more than five points lower than that of Jones (53.6). Both players had flashes of greatness and periods where they played like overmatched rookies. Jones threw 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions but achieved those favorable numbers via three huge games. Against Washington, Detroit and the Jets, Jones combined for 13 touchdowns and no interceptions. In his other 11 starts, his touchdown to interception ratio was 11:12. Jones played just two defenses that finished in the top 10 in DVOA against the pass (New England and Minnesota). In those two games he went 36-69 for 343 yards with two touchdowns, four interceptions and QBR’s of 29.9 and 16.6. The Giants were outscored in those contests 63-24.
Lock’s sample size is small at just five starts but he was up and down as well. He put up big numbers against two of the worst passing defenses in the league (Houston and Detroit), going 47-60 for 501 yards and four touchdowns. But he struggled against the Chiefs and Chargers (36-58, 342, 2/2) and was ho-hum (177 yards) against Oakland’s 31st ranked pass defense. Lock faced just one defense (KC) ranked in the top half of the league in passing DVOA and his 2020 opening-day opponent, Tennessee, finished 21st. The Steelers finished third. Lock has never faced a defense like Pittsburgh’s.
The Giants and Broncos both went to work this off-season to help their young quarterbacks and improve their poor passing games (Denver was 27th in the league in passing DVOA while New York was 26th). The Broncos added a ton of speed on offense by signing free agent running back Melvin Gordon and drafting receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler. The Giants beefed up their offensive line with the addition of draftees Andrew Thomas and Matt Peart and free agent Cameron Fleming. Both teams should get better on offense as the 2020 season progresses. But, with no OTAs due to the pandemic and little time this off-season for the new additions to work with Jones and Lock, the Pittsburgh defense will present a daunting challenge so early in the season.
What do Jones and Lock do well?
When we consider the strengths of each quarterback, we can start with the fact they are both mobile and can extend plays. Jones is the craftier of the two and resembles a young Eli Manning at times. Lock is more of a cocky gunslinger with elements of Brett Favre or even a young Roethlisberger to his game (these are stylistic comparisons only - neither Jones nor Lock are playing at a level anywhere near Manning, Favre or Roethlisberger at this point in their careers).
Anyone who can picture the famous David Tyree “helmet catch” from Super Bowl 42 can probably see Manning twisting and turning in the pocket like a whirling dervish before launching the throw Tyree improbably caught. Manning had a penchant for making unconventional throws like that — off of his back foot, feet not set, elbow out of the throwing slot, etc. Jones makes some of those same throws. He does a nice job moving in the pocket and putting balls on the money with pressure in his face. In the GIF below, from his first start last season against Tampa Bay, he did just that - sliding to his left to avoid the rush before making an off-balance, pinpoint throw to receiver Sterling Shepard:
Jones is also effective on the move and, in a limited sense, as a runner. The Giants incorporated some zone-read concepts into their playbook but Jones is by no means Lamar Jackson. Mostly, his effectiveness came on improvised scrambles when the pocket broke down. Take this run for the game-winning touchdown in that Tampa Bay game:
This was a gutsy decision by Jones. The Giants were trailing by six and had 4th and goal with just over a minute to play. Jones recognized Tampa’s man coverage and, with crossing and flat routes emptying the middle of the field, wasted no time taking off once he found a seam in the pocket to his left (in fairness, the Bucs made it easy on Jones by running a terrible scheme; the right defensive tackle twisted from the B-gap all the way across the face of the center with no corresponding twist coming from the left side. Meanwhile, the right edge rushed up the field. With the man coverage and no backer spying Jones, there was a chasm for him to run through). Still, it’s a good example of how Jones is willing (and able) to use his legs when the situation warrants.
Like Jones, Lock can make throws from a cluttered pocket. To do so, he relies less on pocket awareness and more on his considerable arm strength. Take this example from last season against the Texans. Lock ripped a throw off his back foot to the inside receiver wheeling up the sideline from the twins alignment at the top of the formation. The ball traveled forty-five yards on a line and dropped in just before the half-field safety arrived. It was a heck of a throw, one that few quarterbacks could have made. It was dangerous, too, given the high degree of difficulty. Lock has a gunslinger mentality, no doubt.
Lock is not a runner-by-design either but, like Jones, can threaten defenses with his legs once a play breaks down. Here he is improvising off of a flea-flicker. With no one open down the field, Lock takes off and runs. He’s no speed demon but is capable enough as a scrambler that defenses must be accountable at the second level when Denver throws the ball:
More so, his mobility makes him effective on roll-outs and bootlegs, something the Broncos did fairly often last season. With Jeudy and Hamler complementing last season’s top pick, tight end Noah Fant, I’d expect Denver to play to their strengths by mixing vertical concepts that capitalize on Lock’s arm talent and the speed of his young receivers with pocket movement that gets him away from interior pressure and lets him throw on the run.
Where do Jones and Lock struggle?
Neither quarterback was particularly good last season against the blitz. Jones hit on 61 of 113 throws (54%) for 651 yards and a pedestrian 5.2 yards per throw. He was also sacked 10 times at a rate of one per every 11 attempts. Lock was sacked just twice, or once every 21.5 attempts, indicating a tendency to get the ball out quicker. His yards per attempt was better too (8.4). His completion percentage was terrible, however, as he hit on just 20 of 43 throws (46.5%). Lock, true to his nature, often looked for big plays against the blitz while Jones was more cautious and made safer throws. Jones’s tendency to hold the football and take sacks may have been an indication of the Giants more conservative approach while the Broncos let Lock swing for the fences.
When New York traveled to New England last season, the Patriots played a heavy dose of cover-1 and threw a variety of looks up front at Jones, frustrating him into a 15-31 outing with three interceptions. Here they gave him an amoeba look with defenders milling around the line of scrimmage before the snap. Jones knew the blitz was coming, if not from where, and seemed to pre-determine his throw to receiver Cody Lattimore at the bottom of the screen:
As you can see, the throw was nearly intercepted by corner Stephon Gilmore. Throwing at Gilmore, one of the league’s best defenders, was a mistake. But failing to read the fact that Gilmore had inside leverage on Lattimore prior to the snap, thereby nullifying the slant, was worse. Gilmore jumped the route and had a pick-six if he held on to the football. Jones needed to check out of the slant or throw elsewhere in this situation. Often, against the blitz, he was not ready to make these checks.
Now here’s Lock in Denver’s season finale against Oakland. The Raiders gave Lock a similar look to what New England showed Jones in the previous GIF. Lock correctly diagnosed the blitz and motioned in his tight end for max protection. The Raiders brought heat and Lock uncorked a low percentage deep ball for an incompletion:
This is the big difference between Jones and Lock. Jones wants to make the sensible play by throwing the high percentage slant. Lock wants to hit the home run. The latter is what likely prompted the Broncos to draft Jeudy and Hamler, both of whom are deep-ball threats. The Steelers will have to account for these stylistic differences when considering blitz packages for each opponent.
There are other notable weaknesses as well. Jones was more accurate against zone coverage than against man. Likely this is because zone schemes provide voided areas where quarterbacks can throw receivers into space while man schemes do not. Against man coverage, quarterbacks have to be more precise with ball placement. Jones’ poor performance against New England featured a host of misses against tight coverage, including this interception. It is clear he is more comfortable throwing into the softer, cleaner feel of a zone.
Lock suffers from impatience. Rarely on film do you see him sitting in the pocket progressing through his reads. He prefers to grip it and rip it. He took just five sacks in his five starts as a result (Jones took 38 in 14 starts). But his quick release can cause him to be fooled by what he thinks he’s seeing from a defense.
Take this example from Denver’s game at Kansas City. Lock believes he has single coverage, as evidenced by the image below (all 11 KC defenders are visible in the photo):
However, as we see in the GIF, the Chiefs rotate late to a cover-2 look. Lock doesn’t see it and has already decided to throw the deep out to the inside receiver at the top of the formation. This is a good decision versus man but a terrible one against cover-2. It nearly results in an interception:
Unless Lock progresses in terms of reading coverages, he will likely struggle with the myriad looks the Steelers will present him.
How might the Steelers defend Jones and Lock?
In a word, aggressively. But it should be a different style of aggression for each quarterback.
The way to get to Jones is to pressure his receivers and to blitz him from every conceivable angle. The Steelers have four months to tweak and disguise their favorite blitzes from last season and to borrow from the ones that were most effective against Jones. They should show him some of what he’s seen and some of what he has not. They should play heavy doses of man coverage and dare Jones to throw over the top. With a Giants’ offensive line that could include two or even three new starters, it might be a return to Blitzburgh on opening night.
As for Lock, disguise will be the key. In next week’s article (teaser alert!), I will break down how the Steelers disguised their blitzes and coverages in 2019. Keith Butler, who was once criticized for being far too vanilla with his schemes, has become a master of disguise now that he has the parts (Devin Bush, Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick) to get creative. The Steelers should show Lock every pre-snap look in their playbook and should mask and rotate coverages with abandon. When they blitz, they need to get into the faces of Jeudy and Hamler to disrupt their releases and protect against the deep ball. They need to make things as uncomfortable as possible, both physically and mentally, for the young Denver skill players.
A strong defensive effort against these two inexperienced quarterbacks could catapult the Steelers to their first 2-0 start since 2017. From there it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. But if history is any indicator, exciting things may follow.