The Steelers fought to a 23-20 overtime win against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night. They have reached their bye week at 3-3, which, all things considered, is commendable. Their opening six games were challenging. They played teams with a current combined record of 22-13. To emerge from that stretch with their playoff hopes in tact is no small feat, especially considering their inexperience at several key spots and the fact they’ve been beset by injuries.
Still, Pittsburgh is by no means a complete team. For the Steelers to qualify for the post-season, they’ll need to improve in a host of areas. Fortunately, the bye week is a great time for improvement. Coaches often use it to allow players to heal up and enjoy some down time. When they return to practice, they will have an opportunity to get back to basics. With no opponent for whom to game-plan, the bye is a perfect time to shore up weaknesses, strengthen fundamentals and sharpen techniques.
Here are a couple of areas they should address before play resumes next week.
To say Pittsburgh’s tackling was poor against Seattle would be an understatement. Rather than wrap their arms, run their feet and anchor their hips to the ground, which are three of the most basic requirements of sound tackling, the Steelers spent the evening diving, throwing shoulders and launching themselves at Seattle ball-carriers. It was a feckless display that nearly cost them the game.
Their tackling woes were especially prevalent on the back end, where the linebackers and defensive backs were atrocious. The following play typified their performance. Robert Spillane, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick all converged on Seattle’s Travis Homer as he caught this check-down throw from Geno Smith on a 3rd and 8 play in the 1st quarter. The trio had plenty of room to tackle Homer short of the first down sticks. Instead, this happened:
As if his teammates didn’t execute poorly enough, corner Joe Haden arrived late in the clip and launched himself at Homer’s feet. There were many examples of poor individual tackling by the Steelers throughout the night, but this play was particularly galling since four defenders had a clean shot at Homer. Why weren’t they able to get him on the ground?
The breakdown began with Edmunds, who got into poor position by failing to gather his feet as he approached. This put him off-balance when Homer cut inside:
Spillane, meanwhile, should have angled for Homer’s near hip. He needed to protect against Homer escaping outside, since Fitzpatrick provided inside support. The image below shows that Spillane’s angle was too high, which caused him to lose his leverage:
Spillane missed so badly he impeded Fitzpatrick’s ability to tackle Homer, thereby allowing him to escape to the sideline. Haden’s swan-dive followed, completing the comedy of errors:
You could make an argument that Spillane missed because he was anticipating Homer to stay inside of him and that the flying arm-tackle by Edmunds swung Homer back to the outside. That doesn’t excuse Spillane for his poor positioning. Fitzpatrick’s inside help gave Spillane one job here — don’t get beat outside — which he failed to execute.
Contrast Pittsburgh’s tackling to Seattle’s. On a crucial 3rd and 4 play in overtime, Seahawks’ cornerback Tre Brown (22) made a beautiful form tackle on Ray Ray McCloud to stop McCloud just short of the sticks. Brown’s tackle forced a punt that created a potential game-winning possession for Seattle. It was nearly textbook form. Brown closed quickly, gathered his feet, got his head out of the tackle and wrapped his arms. While Brown went to his knees initially, he quickly regained his feet and forced McCloud backwards:
For much of the evening, Seattle looked like a team that emphasizes tackling in practice. Pittsburgh did not. That’s a problem the Steelers must remedy.
How can they do so? The best way to improve tackling is to tackle. In this regard, NFL coaches are hamstrung. The current collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners greatly limits both practice time and live contact. Fortunately, a great deal of tackling success comes from body positioning. That’s something the Steelers can develop. The images of Spillane, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick whiffing on Homer illustrates how positioning can affect a tackle. Tracking drills which teach players to pursue aiming points on ball-carriers and to work with teammates by attacking the near hip are effective in team-tackling situations. And drills that employ bands, like the one shown below, and force defenders to wrap their arms and run their feet are excellent at teaching balance, explosion and follow-through when tackling solo. With proper instruction, the Steelers can develop better habits as tacklers without actually taking players to the ground in practice.
There’s no doubt Mike Tomlin and the defensive staff are aware of the need to improve in this area. Improvement doesn’t come with words, however. It’s not enough to tell the media, “We need to tackle better.” That’s about as helpful as the parent in the stands at a youth game who implores the defense by screaming “Get him!” Getting him is not that simple. It requires instruction and repetition. For the Steelers to tackle better, the coaching staff must prioritize it in practice. The bye week is a great time to start.
A bigger role for the tight ends
With Juju Smith-Schuster gone for the season with an arm injury, the Steelers have a glaring hole in the slot. McCloud is the only true slot receiver on the active roster, so Chase Claypool played inside at times against Seattle. Claypool didn’t seem comfortable in the role, however, and McCloud is not a starting-caliber receiver.
To fill the void, offensive coordinator Matt Canada went increasing to bigger personnel groupings. Tight ends Pat Freiermuth (45), Eric Ebron (34) and Zach Gentry (23) played a collective 102 snaps against Seattle, their highest total of the season. Fullback Derek Watt got six snaps, which, while not a large number, is more than Watt usually receives. Canada made extensive use of 12, 21 and 22 formations in college. Now, with his receiving corps missing their most versatile player, he may return to those roots by dialing them up in Pittsburgh.
It’s tempting to dismiss this notion as foolish. While the Steelers are slowly improving up front, they remain a young, inexperienced line and rank as one of the worst rushing teams in the league. Why bring bigger players on to the field when it will prompt defenses to do the same? Why clutter the box with bodies their young line must block? Images like the one below, where Canada aligned in a double bunch set that compressed all 22 players into the middle of the field, seem like a terrible look for this offense:
The ensuing play, an inside zone run to Najee Harris, gained about six inches. This can’t be the solution, can it?
Not exclusively. But 12 personnel gives Canada plenty of options. The formation above provides great opportunities in the passing game considering the single-high safety look and how tight the corners are to the line of scrimmage. Look at McCloud’s leverage to the boundary on the right side, for example. A corner route off of play-action would have been nearly impossible to cover. The formation below is a completely different animal, with receivers stretched from sideline to sideline out of the same grouping:
Notice the slot receivers. Harris is in the left slot while Freiermuth is to the right. Canada runs fade-flat, a traditional Cover-2 beater, with Ebron a check-down option in the middle. The flat routes by the slot receivers are simple to execute and give Ben Roethlisberger easy throws to big targets. Those big targets are hard to tackle after the catch, too, as Freiermuth demonstrates by powering through the defense for extra yards after contact:
Freiermuth caught a career-high 7 passes for 58 yards and was targeted 12 times against Seattle. Canada put him on the field more and Roethlisberger got him more involved in the offense. Repeatedly, like we see below, the Seahawks struggled to get Freiermuth on the ground. At 6’5-255, he’s a load to tackle. But he also has great feet and a knack for finding openings in zone coverage. This is precisely what the Steelers will need to offset the loss of Smith-Schuster in the slot.
Having multiple tight ends on the field also gives Canada great red zone options. We saw this on the 2nd quarter touchdown pass to Harris that opened the scoring. While Canada ran the same fade-flat concept to the boundary with Harris and Diontae Johnson, look at what he did on the right side of the formation. He put Claypool, Ebron and Freiermuth in a tight bunch in anticipation of Seattle responding with a match-up zone. The corner would take the flat route while the safety and linebacker matched the inside routes. This gave Canada soft coverage, meaning the defenders were not pressing his receivers at the line. So, he had Ebron and Freiermuth run what amounted to moving picks by aiming their routes directly at the inside defenders. Claypool, meanwhile, snuck underneath into the middle of the field, where he was wide open had Roethlisberger decided to throw him the football:
Speaking of red zone options, the jet sweep to Ebron for Pittsburgh’s second touchdown seemed to surprise both the Seahawks and Sunday Night Football commentator Mike Tirico, who remarked, “Eric Ebron rushing touchdown! Did you have that on the Bingo card tonight?”
To Steelers fans, the call was hardly surprising. Canada has run this concept on the goal line on multiple occasions the past few seasons, predominantly to Claypool and Smith-Schuster. The thing that seemed to shock Tirico, and presumably the Seahawks, was that the ball was handed to Ebron. But Ebron, who was a Wildcat quarterback in high school, has been used in these situations before. He ran for touchdowns in his previous stops in both Detroit and Indianapolis, so to have him do it in Pittsburgh was hardly shocking.
Astute Canada observers were even less surprised. Some may have flashed back to the Pitt-Georgia Tech game from 2016, when Canada, who was then the Panthers’ OC, dialed up this red zone beauty:
So, while Smith-Schuster’s absence will require adjustments on Canada’s part, he has a long history of getting creative with bigger personnel. The bye week should provide him ample time to experiment.
The Steelers play at a wounded Cleveland team when they emerge from the bye, then host Chicago and Detroit. The two home games against weaker NFC North opponents are certainly winnable, while the matchup at Cleveland should be close given Pittsburgh’s bye, Cleveland’s injury situation and the general nature of AFC North showdowns. A 6-3 mark as the Steelers head into the brutal second half of their schedule — at Chargers, at Bengals, Ravens, at Vikings, Titans, at Chiefs, Browns, at Ravens — isn’t unrealistic. To get there, however, they must shore up their tackling on defense and devise a bigger role for the tight ends on offense. With their bye week at hand, now is the time to do it.