Pittsburgh opened the week as just a one-point home favorite, which speaks volumes about how they’re currently perceived. While there’s no doubt the Steelers have struggled, they’ve also faced stiff competition in the season’s first quarter. All of Pittsburgh’s opponents thus far currently boast 3-1 records.
The Broncos, meanwhile, have feasted on some of the league’s bottom-feeders. Denver has beaten Jacksonville and both New York teams (combined record: 2-10) while losing 23-7 to the only competent team they’ve faced (Baltimore). So, while a lack of faith in the Steelers is understandable, the Broncos haven’t exactly slayed Goliath.
Lessons from Green Bay
The Steelers lost 27-17 to the Packers at Lambeau Field last week in a game in which they had their chances. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger overthrew Juju Smith-Schuster on two would-be touchdown passes where Smith-Schuster was behind the defense. And a blocked field goal by Minkah Fitzpatrick that was returned for a touchdown was nullified by a questionable offsides penalty on Joe Haden. While it’s impossible to know the outcome of the game had those plays turned out otherwise, they certainly would have changed things. Still, missed opportunities are just that. They are the calling card of struggling football teams.
The big takeaway from Green Bay was the growing concern around Roethlisberger. He began the contest with one of his best throws of the season, a dart to Diontae Johnson for a 45 yard touchdown that gave the Steelers their first points on an opening drive in their last 12 games:
It went downhill from there. He finished with a horrendous throw to Johnson, staring down the receiver before forcing a ball into a crowded Cover-2 zone that had no prayer of being completed:
The interception punctuated another poor performance from the veteran quarterback. While the offense has been limited so far by a young line that’s still learning to play together, Roethlisberger has been problematic. The touchdown to Johnson is a throw he used to make regularly. Now, it’s an outlier. More common are throws like this one, a bad miss on a simple in-cut:
In his post-game comments, Roethlisberger attributed his inaccuracy to poor mechanics, claiming he was dropping his elbow and causing the football to sail. There is nothing wrong with his mechanics here, however. Roethlisberger has a clean pocket, keeps his elbow up and steps into his throw. He just misses. There’s nothing left to attribute this to but deteriorating skills, an unfortunate but inevitable reality for a player in Roethlisberger’s situation.
The admission that Roethlisberger’s time as a starting NFL quarterback may be up is a bridge the Steelers must soon cross. The argument from the coaching staff is that he still gives them the best chance to win football games. That’s a debate that is increasingly worth having. While the offense may not get better with Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins at the helm, it’s unlikely to get worse. The Denver game will be a huge one for Roethlisberger, then. While he has accomplished so much in his distinguished career, past performance cannot be used to justify the present. Time is running out for him to prove he can still play the position at an acceptable level.
It wasn’t all bad for the offense in Green Bay, though. The run game improved, even if the statistics failed to overwhelm. Najee Harris carried the ball 15 times for 62 yards, the first time this season he’s cleared 4+ yards per attempt. Harris’s numbers would have been better had the Steelers not abandoned the run in the second half after falling behind 27-10. Prior to the contest, Harris had been contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on an astounding 70% of his carries, a statistic that reflected how ineffective the line had been at preventing penetration or creating a push. In Green Bay, however, there were actually holes through which Harris could run:
The Steelers did a better job blocking Green Bay’s three-man odd front than they had in previous weeks handling four-man even fronts. The odd front gave them an extra seam to attack and the line did a decent job covering up defenders and letting Harris find a hole. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada went with some 12 personnel early on, getting an extra blocker on the field in the form of a second tight end. This paid off and will hopefully become more prevalent. The bigger groupings create extra run gaps. Harris has demonstrated he doesn’t need much of an opening to make positive yardage. If Canada can scheme better run looks, it could unleash Harris’s potential, in turn making things easier for Roethlisberger.
Defensively, it’s hard to know where the Steelers stand. They defended Aaron Rodgers fairly well, limiting him to moderate numbers (20-36, 248 yards) while sacking him three times. The consequence was that their focus on pass defense lightened the box and allowed the Packers to rush for a season-high 131 yards.
The defensive line has been hurt badly by the absences of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu. Green Bay took advantage of their replacements, often getting movement on Henry Mondeaux and Isaiah Buggs to open seams for their backs:
Pittsburgh’s strategy to have their linebackers crowd the ball in an effort to confuse Rodgers as to who was blitzing and who was dropping into coverage was often effective against the pass. It hurt them against the run, however, as the defense struggled at times to fit their proper gaps. We see that in the play above. Watch how safety Terrell Edmunds and linebacker Devin Bush both fit the B-gap while no one plugged the A-gap through which Jones ran. The Steelers had to take some chances to stop Rodgers. Green Bay, to their credit, found ways to make them pay.
So, while the defense did not look great in Green Bay, and while neither Tuitt nor Alualu are set to return, the Steelers will employ a strategy against Denver that will make them more sound against the run. A healthier T.J. Watt should help as well. I’d look for a bounce-back performance from this unit against Denver.
What about the Broncos?
On offense, the Broncos are middle-of-the-road this season in just about every meaningful metric. They are 11th in rushing yards, 17th in total offense, 21st in passing yards and 21st in points. Defensively, they fare much better. They are 2nd in points, 4th in total yards, 5th against the run and 6th against the pass. Denver has only faced one high-powered offense, however, and the Ravens tuned them up for 406 total yards. So, while Denver’s defensive numbers are strong, they are in part a reflection of their level of competition.
Head coach Vic Fangio’s defense, which bases out of a 3-4 and plays heavy doses of zone coverage, was exploited by the Ravens last week in unanticipated fashion. Baltimore, the league’s best run team, shredded the Broncos through the air by throwing from run-heavy looks.
Here, versus 21 personnel, you can see Denver’s safeties creep down to get aggressive against the run. This provided Baltimore a great opportunity to split them to the post off of play-action:
The Ravens also used play-action to manipulate Denver’s linebackers. While quarterback Lamar Jackson threw the deeper dig route on the following play, look at how the backers were scrambled by the outside zone run-fake. This created plenty of space in the middle of the field for Baltimore’s receivers:
Even when Denver backed off in coverage, Baltimore found room to operate. Again, look at how the play-action cleared out the middle of the field. Jackson threw his out-cut here but the Ravens continually got looks like these between the hashes and down the seam:
Baltimore’s offense is a different animal than Pittsburgh’s so the Steelers shouldn’t expect the same scheme from the Broncos. Still, what Baltimore did with their passing game practically begs the Steelers to run more 12 personnel and get aggressive in the middle of the field. Playing two tight ends helped the Steelers create an extra run gap against Green Bay’s odd front last week. This week, against another odd look, it could pay dividends in the passing game as well.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers must prepare for an uncertain quarterback situation. Starter Teddy Bridgewater was knocked out of the Baltimore game with a head injury and entered the concussion protocol. As of Wednesday, the Broncos were yet to make a definitive statement on his status, saying only that he could be cleared by Friday. This means the Steelers must prepare for both Bridgewater and his backup, Drew Lock.
Lock finished the Ravens game in unspectacular fashion, going 12-21 for 113 yards and an interception. With a full week of practice to run the starting offense, however, it’s likely he’ll be better prepared should he get the nod this Sunday. The Steelers saw Lock briefly last season in their 26-21 Week 2 victory. Lock went 1-5 for 20 yards before being knocked out late in the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Backup Jeff Driskel came on and nearly rallied the Broncos to victory.
The 2020 game underscores how hard it can be to adjust to a different quarterback when a defense has planned for someone else all week. While Driskel is no world-beater, he dinked-and-dunked the Broncos down the field against a Steelers’ defense that had prepared for the big arm and deep-ball capability of Lock. Bridgewater and Lock present different styles as well, with Bridgewater more of a small-ball quarterback and Lock the home-run hitter. The Steelers will have to account for both.
Receiver Courtland Sutton has stepped in for the injured Jerry Jeudy to emerge as Denver’s biggest threat on the outside. Jeudy is on injured reserve and will not play against the Steelers. Nor will speedster K.J. Hamler, who is done for the season with an ACL tear. This likely means the Broncos will lean heavily on Sutton and on tight end Noah Fant, who was targeted 10 times last week against the Ravens. Denver should also rely on their run game given their injury situation and Pittsburgh’s patchwork defensive line. Veteran Melvin Gordon and recent BTSC draft-crush Javonte Williams give the Broncos a solid 1-2 punch at running back. The duo has accounted for 434 yards and 3 touchdowns on the season.
I like this matchup for Pittsburgh. Denver’s odd front presents opportunities to run the football, which could, if Roethlisberger can pull it together, open up the passing game. And Denver’s injuries on offense, coupled with the fact they are tied for 5th in the league in sacks allowed, bodes well for the defense. If Pittsburgh can stop the run they should keep Denver in check. The Steelers haven’t started 0-3 at home in a season since 1986. I don’t think they will this year, either.
Steelers 24, Broncos 20