The Steelers broke a three-game losing streak with a 27-19 win over the Denver Broncos. Rookie running back Najee Harris eclipsed the century mark for the first time in his career, totaling 122 yards on 23 carries, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was an efficient 15-25 for 253 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Seattle played last Thursday, where they lost 26-17 to the Rams. While the defeat was discouraging for Seahawks fans, the loss of star quarterback Russell Wilson to a fractured finger on his throwing hand was devastating. Wilson will miss 4-6 weeks, which means journeyman Geno Smith will pilot Seattle’s offense against the Steelers.
The Not-So-Odd Front
As I touched on in my film room from earlier this week, Pittsburgh’s success on offense against Denver began with their steadily-improving line. The line paved the way for Harris’ best day as a pro and largely kept Roethlisberger clean. Roethlisberger was sacked just once and hit only twice. The veteran quarterback showed that, while he is no longer the player he once was, he can still get the job done when given time in the pocket.
Pittsburgh’s improvement up front is largely a factor of better technique and more aggressive play. But they have benefited from the scheme-fit of their recent opponents as well. The Steelers have seen 3-4 odd fronts the past two weeks. In an odd front, defenders line up in the gaps between offensive linemen. This differs from an even front, where they align head-up. “Even” and “odd” refer to how alignment techniques are labeled, not to the number of defenders along the line of scrimmage.
“Odd” fronts can be simpler to block at times because, with defenders in gaps, offensive linemen have good angles on them. Odd fronts allow more one-on-one blocks, too, which the Steelers were particularly good at winning against the Broncos.
“Even” fronts are often trickier. With the head-up alignment, defenders can slant to one gap or another. This requires communication among offensive linemen to determine blocking responsibilities, particularly on zone schemes. Defenders in even fronts also tend to be bigger since they are often asked to control two gaps. It makes sense then, given their youth and inexperience up front, that the Steelers struggled to block the even fronts they saw earlier this season against Las Vegas and Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh will see another odd look this week. While the Seahawks play a variety of fronts — 3-4, 4-3, 4-2-5, a “Bear” look — they are almost exclusively a single-gap defense. Scheme-wise, it’s a good match-up for Pittsburgh’s developing line.
The Steelers should also benefit from the fact that Seattle simply isn’t very good on defense right now. The Seahawks are surrendering 450 yards per game, which is dead last in the league. They are 31st against the run, 30th against the pass, 24th in creating turnovers and 22nd in points allowed. Their best ranking is in quarterback pressures, where they are 13th.
Their front, which mixes Poona Ford, Robert Nkemdiche and Al Woods at the tackle spots and Kerry Hyder Jr, Carlos Dunlap and Rasheem Green at the ends, lacks impact players. Dunlap is a big name but is far removed from his prime in Cincinnati. Woods, the former Steeler, is 34 years old and at the tail end of his career. Hyder had a good year in San Francisco in 2020 but is on his fourth team in four years. Green is a decent pass rusher but struggles against the run.
At linebacker, Bobby Wagner remains a force in the middle. Wagner racked up 20 tackles in Seattle’s 33-30 overtime loss to Tennessee in September. He has 58 tackles for the season, second-best in the NFL. Wagner needs help, though. Jordyn Brooks, a 2020 1st round pick, has struggled with coverage duties on the weak side. And Darrell Taylor, a converted defensive end, is still learning on the strong side.
In the secondary, Seattle has given up a host of big plays, many of which have been the product of blown coverages. Take this one, where the Seahawks turned 49ers’ slot receiver Deebo Samuel loose on a simple post-wheel combination for a 76 yard touchdown:
You can see safety Jamal Adams (33), who is rolled up on Samuel prior to the snap, pointing behind him as Samuel turns up the field. Adams is indicating that the corner should take him. The corner is gone, however, having chased the post. This puts the corner and the safety inside, Adams in the flat and no one on the wheel.
Last week, against the Rams, Seattle could not cover the middle of the field. In the link I’ve inserted below, Ted Nguyen of The Athletic documented how Los Angeles continually beat Seattle with different versions of the same route, which featured a low cross, a middle dig and a high post. L.A. did a great job exploiting the shortcomings of Seattle’s linebackers in coverage:
Couldn't confirm without the film but the Rams really kept calling the same play over and over again last night and SEA could not stop it. I don't recall ever seeing a pass play called this many times in a NFL game. pic.twitter.com/W2GRNZtK3H— Ted Nguyen (@FB_FilmAnalysis) October 8, 2021
When asked about the busted coverages, head coach Pete Carroll said, “They’re not busts, they’re execution.” Carroll can play the semantics game if he chooses. The bottom line is this: when a receiver is running wide open, or when the same route concept works over and over, the defense has a problem.
Geno to the Rescue?
Offensively, the Seahawks will have to rely on Smith at quarterback. While that proposition sounds dicey for Seahawks’ fans, Smith did not look terrible in relief of Wilson last Thursday night. He directed a 10 play, 98-yard touchdown drive and an 11 play, 46-yard drive that ended in a field goal to keep the score competitive. Smith had a chance to rally the Seahawks to victory when Seattle took possession with 2:09 to play down 23-17. But he was intercepted when receiver Tyler Lockett stumbled and his throw went straight to a Rams’ defender.
Smith, for those who don’t remember, was a 2nd Round pick by the Jets out of West Virginia in 2013. He had a stellar college career as a read-option quarterback but flamed out after two seasons as the starter in New York, where he struggled with pro-style concepts. As a backup, he’s thrown 118 passes over the past six seasons for four different teams. He has career numbers of 30 touchdowns against 37 interceptions and a completion percentage of 58.8. None of this suggests a high level of competence.
That said, Steelers fans should be (painfully) reminded of the team’s struggles against backup quarterbacks. In the past decade, Pittsburgh has lost to Matt Cassel, Mike Glennon, Mike Glennon again, Ryan Mallett, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Finley and Timothy Richard Tebow, who, although he was technically a starter at the time, resembled a backup in every possible way.
A loss to Smith, then, would hardly be shocking, especially when you consider some of the weapons at his disposal. Lockett is a solid professional receiver. Teammate D.K. Metcalf is a walking mismatch. Tight end Will Dissly is athletic and has good hands. And running back Chris Carson has a couple of 1,000 yard seasons on his resume. Seattle is averaging a respectable 24 points per game and has enough veterans on offense to find ways to move the football, with or without Wilson. Taking the Seahawks lightly would be a huge mistake for a Pittsburgh team looking to build on last week’s success.
What’s the plan?
The Steelers should continue to build their offense around the formula that worked last week and, to a lesser degree, the week before in Green Bay. They should attack Seattle’s odd front by pounding Harris on inside zone and gap runs, which the line has improved upon, and forget the more complicated outside zone schemes that failed miserably in September. They should use more 12 personnel sets that get their tight ends, who have done a nice job as blockers in recent weeks, onto the field. Especially since JuJu Smith-Schuster is sidelined. They should use their RPOs, which have been effective lately, especially if they get heavy doses of zone coverage. They should continue to implement more of Matt Canada’s signature shifts, motions and trades in an attempt to either outflank or confuse a Seattle defense that has, as previously mentioned, not been immune to busted coverages or misalignments. And they should take shots down the field when they get good looks to do so, particularly early in the game. Roethlisberger has thrown long touchdown passes on Pittsburgh’s last two opening drives. An aggressive opening scheme would again be a smart decision.
Defensively, the Steelers must defend against the deep ball and prevent Seattle from hitting home runs. Metcalf and Lockett both average over 15 yards a catch and thrive in downfield one-on-one situations. I’d favor a less-aggressive safety scheme from the Steelers so they can help their corners over the top. While this may open up some underneath throws for Smith, making the journeyman QB prove he can be patient, disciplined and accurate enough to dink-and-dunk his way down the field is a wiser course than letting him toss up jump balls to Metcalf. The Steelers should also supplement their coverages with a host of disguises. Given the fact that reading defenses has never been Smith’s strength, coordinator Keith Butler should author a game-plan that reads like Faulkner.
I’m not saying this game will define the rest of their season, but Sunday night represents a huge opportunity for the Steelers. With a win, they can get to 3-3, climb back into the playoff conversation and head into the bye week feeling good about themselves. That’s a far better prospect than 2-4 with extra time to absorb a prime-time home loss to Geno Smith. I don’t think it will be easy, it never is against backup QBs, but I think they’ll find a way.
Pittsburgh 28, Seattle 20