There are two ways of looking at the Steelers’ 2021 season at present.
The first is, Oh, what could have been. In a wide-open AFC where no team has emerged as a true alpha, the Steelers, at 6-6-1, remain in contention for a playoff berth. With four difficult games remaining, however, it’s reasonable to expect them to finish no better than 8-8-1, which will leave them on the outside of the playoff window looking in. A gruesome tie at home to the Lions and narrow losses to the Chargers and Vikings in games where they simply did not show up in the first half appear costly. Had the Steelers played better in any of these contests, their playoff outlook would be more encouraging.
The other perspective goes like this: wait, the Steelers are still alive? Given the fact they’ve played some brutal stretches of football this year, that they cannot run the ball nor stop the run, and that their injury list resembles a M*A*S*H roster, it’s a small miracle they’ve not yet been mathematically eliminated from post-season play. In fact, should they somehow go 3-1 over their final four games, they would almost be guaranteed a wild card spot.
I can hear some of you groaning at that last sentence. 3-1? Against the Titans, Chiefs, Browns and Ravens? I understand your skepticism. I’m not holding my breath on it, either. It is possible, though, even if we assume the game at Kansas City to be a loss. Wins at home against Tennessee and Cleveland, and on the road the final week against the Ravens, where Ben Roethlisberger could be playing to extend his career, are not inconceivable. Stranger things have happened.
To get there, the Steelers must first handle the Titans. While that will be a tall task, it’s a game that may be more winnable than it appears. Here’s a preview.
The Titans are in the driver’s seat in the AFC South. At 9-4, they lead the 7-6 Colts by two games, which is really a three-game lead given Tennessee swept the season series between the two. Indy most likely has to win-out to claim the division, which will be difficult considering they play New England and Arizona the next two weeks. Tennessee is in a good spot, then, and while they will surely play hard against the Steelers, they do not enter this weekend’s game with the same sense of urgency as Pittsburgh.
The Titans are a big, physical team who have always played Pittsburgh tough. Match-ups with them still remind me of the games when I was a kid between the Steelers and Tennessee’s predecessor, the Houston Oilers. Excluding a period in the late 1980s when they experimented with Mouse Davis’s run-and-shoot offense, or what Buddy Ryan once derisively referred to as the “Chuck and Duck,” games between these franchises have always been smash-mouth affairs featuring bruising running backs. From Earl Campbell, Eddie George and Derrick Henry on one side to Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and now Najee Harris on the other, Steelers-Oilers or Steelers-Titans has usually showcased football in its purest, most elemental form.
This year, things are a bit different. While both Pittsburgh and Tennessee still want to run the football, neither is as capable as they’d prefer. The Steelers’ run-woes are well-documented. Pittsburgh ranks 29th in the league in rushing yards-per-game and last in yards-per-attempt. Tennessee, meanwhile, has seen its run game suffer dramatically since Henry went down five weeks ago with a broken foot. Tennessee averaged 168 yards-per-game with Henry in the lineup but is down to 89 per game in his absence. Their offense has struggled as a result, particularly in the past three weeks. In a stretch that has included games against the 2-11 Texans and Jaguars, they’ve gone 1-2 while averaging just 15.3 points.
This bodes well for a Steelers defense that has been abysmal at stopping the run. Pittsburgh was gashed by the Vikings last week to the tune of 242 rushing yards. Sometimes this was a product of simply being dominated up front, like we saw on Minnesota’s first play from scrimmage:
The key to Minnesota’s success on this play was in winning one-on-one blocks. They washed down Chris Wormley (95) from his alignment as the play-side 3-tech. They kicked out edge player Derek Tuszka (48), who caught his block rather than attacking it. And they covered up both inside linebackers, Devin Bush (55) and Joe Schobert (93), moving each to clear a massive hole for running back Dalvin Cook. Plays like this, where the Vikings were the hammers and the Steelers were the nails, were repeated over and over.
When the Steelers weren’t getting physically manhandled, they put themselves in bad position to defend the run with their personnel packages. For some reason, coordinator Keith Butler played a good amount of dime defense, seen in the photo below, against Minnesota’s 11 personnel. This was especially curious because the Vikings’ second-best receiver, Adam Thielen, was out with an injury. It was also curious because the only inside backer in Butler’s 2-3-6 configuration was Marcus Allen (circled below), who hadn’t played a single snap on defense all season:
The strategy backfired, as the Vikings tore through the dime. On this play, Allen was late coming unblocked through a wide-open gap. Cook went untouched until safety Terrell Edmunds brought him to the ground 30 yards beyond the line of scrimmage:
The Steelers shouldn’t play much dime, if any, against Tennessee. The Titans, even without Henry, are a 12 and 21 personnel offense. They like fullbacks and tight ends, which means we will see plenty of base 3-4 from the Steelers. This will mean lots of reps for Wormley and Cam Heyward plus some rotation of Henry Mondeaux, Isaiahh Loudermilk and Montravious Adams. The latter three have all shown they can play well in spots. They’ve also shown none can do so consistently.
Fortunately, the Steelers won’t face an offense like Minnesota’s on Sunday. The Vikings are 3rd in the league in total yards and 10th in points. Tennessee, without Henry and their best receiver, A.J. Brown, who is on injured reserve, is among the worst in the league in both categories over the past five weeks.
Three weeks ago, they ran for just 103 yards against a Houston defense that ranks last in the league against the run. Houston defended Tennessee by doing what teams have done to the Steelers so often the past couple of years — loading the box with defenders to get a +1 advantage and daring Tennessee to throw the ball down the field.
Look at Houston’s defensive structure in the clip below. With Tennessee in 11 personnel, Houston played cover-1 and walked the strong safety (23) down to become the edge player on the left side of the front, giving them a 7-on-6 advantage in the box. The safety is unaccounted for and comes clean to assist with the tackle. Meanwhile, both inside backers sell out against the run. Watch how aggressively they fill. They are playing to stop the run, no questions asked:
When Tennessee went with their heavier personnel, as is their preference, Houston stuck to their guns. In the photo below, the Titans are in a wing set from 12 personnel with a reduced wideout to create an eight-man blocking surface. Houston has 10 defenders in the frame, all bunched within five yards of the line of scrimmage:
The Texans may be vulnerable to play-action here but they don’t care. They are intent on stopping the run. Which, with a good get-off from their interior players and another aggressive fill from their inside backers, they again manage to do:
The other thing Houston did well against Tennessee was to play with sound fundamentals. That doesn’t sound very sexy but it’s amazing how effective it can be when applied rigorously. Watch the pad level of the players along Houston’s front on this 4th and 1 play. By winning vertical leverage, they create a stalemate at the line of scrimmage and a mosh pit of bodies. Tennessee’s running back gets swallowed up in the pile as a result, and Houston earns a turnover on downs:
For the Steelers to apply a similar strategy, they will need several things. First, their interior players have to hold the line. Heyward is sure to draw double-teams, as has been the case all season, so the others, whether it is Wormley, Mondeaux, Adams or Loudermilk, must win one-on-one blocks. “Win” doesn’t necessarily mean they have to stuff Tennessee’s blockers and drive them into the backfield. They just can’t let the opposite occur.
Second, Pittsburgh’s corners must hold up in man-coverage against Tennessee’s wideouts. The Titans are not particularly fast outside. They feature 32 year-old Julio Jones, who has been limited by injuries this season and has caught just 25 passes, and a bunch of guys (Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Chester Rogers, Racey McMath) who I had never heard of before writing this article. With Brown unavailable, the Steelers must make Tennessee beat them throwing the ball outside.
They will also need to pressure quarterback Ryan Tannehill, something opposing defenses have done well recently. Tannehill was sacked four times last week against Jacksonville and has been taken down 13 times in the five games since Henry was injured. He’s thrown just four touchdowns against six interceptions over that time. T.J. Watt’s status for Sunday is, at the time of this writing, not yet know. With or without Watt, generating pressure on Tannehill will help the corners immensely should the Steelers put them on an island.
Finally, Pittsburgh’s ability to stop the run will hinge greatly on the play of their inside linebackers. Opposing offenses have run willingly at Bush and Schobert this season. Schobert struggled so much against the Vikings he was benched for a stretch in favor of rookie Buddy Johnson, who, like Marcus Allen, saw his first defensive snaps of the season. The Steelers will need Bush, Schobert, Johnson, Allen or whomever they plug in the middle to be as aggressive as Houston’s backers were in order to defend the run effectively.
What’s it going to be, then? A porous Pittsburgh run defense rising to the occasion? Or a struggling Tennessee rushing attack finding its groove against Pittsburgh’s beleaguered front? That matchup may very well determine the outcome of a contest the Steelers must win to keep their playoff hopes alive.