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Patience and protection are the keys to victory for the Steelers vs. the Broncos

The Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing for the Denver Broncos in Week 2, and the keys to victory might not be as easy as many believe.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This week, we are scouting the match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0) and the Denver Broncos (0-1) in Pittsburgh’s home opener at Heinz Field. The Steelers knocked off the New York Giants in week one, 26-16, while Denver yielded a late field goal to fall at home to the Tennessee Titans, 16-14.

Before we do that, let’s check our scouting report from last week and see how the Steelers did with their keys to victory against the Giants:

Stop Saquon Barkley. Mission accomplished. The Steelers played more of their base 3-4 than normal to stop Barkley and it worked. Barkley carried 15 times for a measly 6 yards and was a non-factor most of the night.

To blitz or not to blitz? One of the key questions about the defensive game-plan versus the Giants was how often the Steelers would blitz young quarterback Daniel Jones. The answer? A lot. The Steelers came after Jones relentlessly, hurrying him constantly, sacking him three times and forcing two interceptions.

Protect against an early big play. After a marginal pass interference call on Joe Haden kept a first quarter drive alive, the Giants hit Darius Slayton on a 41 yard touchdown pass to the post. The defense recovered nicely from that mistake, however.

All things considered, it was a great team effort in week one. Now, on to the Broncos!

The last time these teams met, in Denver in 2018, this happened:

While that play has little relevance to Sunday’s encounter, any time I can show a GIF of a Steelers’ kicker throwing a touchdown pass to an offensive tackle, I’m going to do it.

Our scouting report this week focuses on Pittsburgh’s passing game versus Denver’s pass defense. The Broncos finished in the middle-of-the-pack defending the pass in 2019 (14th in defensive pass DVOA). Last week, against Tennessee, they yielded 249 passing yards and two touchdown throws to Ryan Tannehill while sacking the Titans quarterback just once. They will have their hands full with a Pittsburgh passing attack that was surprisingly sharp in their opener. Ben Roethlisberger finished 21-32 for 229 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in his first return to action in a year. Roethlisberger shook off some early rust and finished the final two and half quarters by going 14-18 for 151 yards.

Denver’s pass defense has suffered some adversity. They lost their best cover corner, Chris Harris Jr., to the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency. They brought in seven-year veteran A.J. Bouye from Jacksonville as his replacement. Bouye left the Tennessee game with a shoulder injury and did not return. The rest of Denver’s defensive backfield includes corner Bryce Callahan, free safety Kareem Jackson and strong safety Justin Simmons. It’s a decent group but lacks a shutdown player, especially if Bouye is out.

The biggest blow occurred up front, where star linebacker Von Miller, who last season cracked the Top 25 for sacks in NFL history (106), was lost to a season-ending ankle injury in practice just before the opener. Denver has another solid edge rusher in third-year linebacker Bradley Chubb, but Chubb is coming off of a torn ACL that shut down his 2019 season after just four games. Finding ways to pressure Roethlisberger will be essential to their success in Pittsburgh.

Here, then, are two things to look for when the Steelers put the ball in the air against Denver’s defense.

Attacking Denver’s zone coverage

Head coach Vic Fangio is a former defensive coordinator and retains a heavy hand in the Broncos’ game-planning. The last time the Steelers played a Fangio-coached defense was in 2017, when they lost 23-17 in overtime at Chicago. Roethlisberger struggled that day, going 22-39 for 235 yards. He was sacked three times and lost a fumble as the Steelers turned in one of those playing-down-to-a-weaker-opponent performances that has occasionally haunted them.

The lost fumble is interesting because it underscored a difference between the 2017 offense and the one Roethlisberger operates today. Namely, how much he relied on Antonio Brown in the passing game.

In the still frame below, we see the play, a 3rd and 8 late in the 1st quarter from the +38 yard line. Roethlisberger had three open receivers at or near the first down sticks on the right side of the field with only two Chicago defenders in the vicinity. Instead, he can be seen staring down Brown (indicated by the arrow), who is double-teamed by the corner and safety up the left sideline and has not yet come out of his break or turned to look for the ball:

The pass rush eventually swooped in, the ball was stripped and the Bears recovered. It was a squandered opportunity in Chicago territory, the product of an offense that was far too reliant on #84 in the passing game.

Brown was targeted 14 times in that Chicago game, making 10 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. While those numbers are good, the disparity in targets is significant. Brown had twice as many targets as the next highest player, Martavis Bryant, who received seven.

In week one, the Steelers offense distributed the ball more equitably than its 2017 counterpart. Diontae Johnson led the team with ten targets. But nine players were targeted overall, eight of whom caught at least one pass. Juju Smith-Schuster had six catches on six targets and caught two touchdown passes. James Washington caught a touchdown. Rookie Chase Claypool made a spectacular catch for the first reception of his career. Roethlisberger was successful at finding open receivers and not forcing the ball into coverage.

That approach should be more effective against Fangio’s zone-heavy scheme than relying on a single player like they did in Chicago. Against man coverage, teams often target the best match-up available, meaning the player most likely to win their one-on-one encounter. It makes sense, in those cases, to target a receiver like Brown repeatedly.

Against zone, however, a quarterback must be patient and take what the defense yields. Offenses can scheme to create advantages against zone by running “zone-beaters,” or route combinations designed to out-number a defender in his particular area. A good example of that is shown below, where a curl-flat concept versus cover-3 conflicts the flat defender by putting a high and a low receiver in his zone. The quarterback cannot force the ball to the receiver running the curl if the flat defender has dropped underneath it. Instead, he must throw to the flat. Patience and smart ball distribution are more important against zone than feeding a specific target.

With the corner playing deep third coverage, the flat defender is conflicted here by the high-low combo in his zone

Predominantly, the Broncos are a cover-4 defense (otherwise known as “Quarters”). Quarters requires defenders to pattern-match, which means they lock on a receiver until he clears their area, at which point they pass him to a teammate. As you can see in the diagram below, Quarters potentially drops four defenders deep, making it difficult for offenses to throw vertically. However, the underneath area is manned primarily by linebackers. The Steelers will likely target Denver’s backers, whose coverage skills are mediocre.

Image couresty of X&O Labs

Tannehill targeted ten different receivers on his 44 pass attempts against Denver. He was patient and did not try to force the ball deep. On Tennessee’s 12 play, 83 yard drive that set up the game-winning field goal, Tannehill completed throws of 8, 9, 6, 11 and 6 yards. On their third quarter scoring drive, the yardage on Tannehill’s completions went 8, 7, 4, 13, 7 and 1. Dropping the ball into the shallow voids in zone coverage may not be sexy but it’s smart.

Here’s an example. The Broncos are playing off with their corners, protecting against the deep ball, and are aggressive attacking the routes in the middle of the field. Tannehill reads the Mike linebacker (#45) and throws the outside slant when the Mike drops under the slot receiver:

Here’s another. It’s the same route. This time, the Mike sits in the middle of the field so Tannehill fits in a tight throw to the slot:

Both plays show how Denver prefers to defend the pass by rushing four, dropping seven, matching routes underneath and protecting against the deep ball. And both show how Tannehill, by being patient and taking what the defense gave him, was deliberate and effective.

The Steelers were excellent in the second half attacking the underneath zones against New York. Diontae Johnson made a living on routes like this, where the Steelers ran four verticals to stretch New York’s zone coverage and brought Johnson on a shallow cross underneath. Roethlisberger got Johnson the ball quickly and he had room to run after the catch:

Roethlisberger is comfortable with these reads and throws, so the Broncos will have to mask their coverages to try to confuse him. If Roethlisberger gets a feel for what Denver is doing, and if he takes what he’s given and spreads the ball around, expect a big night from the Steelers in the passing game.

To blitz or not to blitz? (Denver edition)

We asked this very question of the Steelers defense in last week’s scouting report. This week, we ask it of Denver’s unit. The Broncos finished 17th in the NFL last season with 40 sacks. However, their pass-rush win rate, which tracks how often a rusher can beat his block in under 2.5 seconds, ranked 30th overall. The Broncos would benefit from more one-on-one wins up front.

On the other side of the ball, the Steelers finished 2019 with the seventh-highest team pass-block win rate (the ability of linemen to sustain their block for 2.5 seconds or more). Coupled with the emphasis in the Pittsburgh passing game on getting the ball out quickly, it would seem, on paper at least, that the pass protection match-up favors the Steelers.

Fangio was not big on blitzing when he ran the defense in Chicago. In 2018, the Bears rushed just four players more often than any team in the NFL. Fangio has been true to that philosophy so far in Denver. The Broncos rarely sent more than four against Tennessee. Their seven-man zones prevented big plays but gave Tannehill time to find windows underneath. The loss of Miller, and Denver’s lack of pressure against Tennessee, may change his thinking.

The Steelers’ offensive line was in flux entering the New York game, with starters at three new positions. Injuries to right tackle Zach Banner and right guard Stephen Wisnewski are likely to re-shuffle it once again. Rookie guard Kevin Dotson may start for Wisnewski on Sunday. And, with Banner out for the season with a torn ACL, Chuks Okorafor will likely fill in at tackle. Denver may try to confuse the inexperienced duo with twists and stunts in an effort to generate more pressure. Pittsburgh may have to adjust by leaving a back or tight end in to help with protection. Denver’s pass rush scheme versus Pittsburgh’s plan to protect Roethlisberger is the most compelling chess match of this contest.

The match-up between the Steelers and Broncos may hinge on a couple of factors, then: Ben Roethlisberger’s willingness to be patient, spread the ball around and take what Denver gives him (all of which he did well in the opener); and Denver’s ability to apply more pressure to Roethlisberger than they did to Ryan Tannehill in week one. Success in the passing game is likely the key to a 2-0 start for the Steelers.