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The Steelers defense will face a very different test in Week 2 vs. the Raiders

While Buffalo attacked the Steelers with quickness, the Raiders are big and fast.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Las Vegas Raiders Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills played a lot of snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers without using a running back, tight end or a full back. The Bills love to go wide receiver heavy, and they took it even farther in Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Personnel usage shows offensive philosophy

A quick snap count breakdown shows it clearly.

The Bills played 85 offensive snaps in week 1.

Total RB snaps: 74, 0.87 RBs per snap.
Total TE+FB snaps: 52, 0.61 per snap.
Total WR snaps: 296, 3.48 per snap.

3.48 WRs per snap is crazy. The Steelers averaged 2.65 WRs per snap in week 1, close to the 2.73 WRs per snap they averaged in 2020 when they had the worst run game in the NFL.

The Bills were going to be receiver heavy, but facing a Steelers team with questionable depth in their secondary, the Bills went all in to force the Steelers to play Devin Bush and Joe Schobert less and guys like Tre Norwood, Arthur Maulet and James Pierre more.

The Los Vegas Raiders snap counts show a very different approach.

The Raiders played 86 offensive snaps in week 1.

Total RB snaps: 86, 1 RB per snap.
Total TE+FB snaps: 161, 1.87 per snap.
Total WR snaps: 182, 2.12 per snap.

A very different look than the Bills. The Bills had over 5 times as many WR snaps as TE+FB snaps, the Raiders had only 21 more WR snaps than TE+FB snaps.

The Raiders used their TE and FBs more than three times as often as the Bills. It wasn’t score based either. The Raiders held the lead for 0 seconds in their win against the Ravens. The second they finally took the lead the game ended. They weren’t going heavy and running to milk the clock with a lead. And the Bills led for over 3/4ths of their game against the Steelers. Their personnel usage was far more about identity and talent than it was game situation.

The Steelers will adjust to the Raiders offense

In week 1 the Bills were the perfect team to exploit a Steelers secondary that had serious question marks. The Steelers secondary stepped up and more than answered the challenge, they were fantastic. In week 2 the Steelers won’t be using nickel and dime defense the vast majority of the game, and are likely to be spending a lot of time in their 3-4 sets with only 4 defensive backs on the field.

That means the Steelers, who carried 5 defensive lineman on the active roster in week 1, will be having that defensive line depth tested with Stephon Tuitt on injured reserve.

The Steelers Starting front 3 will be Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Chris Wormley. But they will need to rotate those players. Cameron Heyward had an immense impact in week one, but the Steelers were able to rotate him off the field to keep him fresh, Heyward only played 66% of the week one snaps. They could do that because they had 5 lineman, and only played two on most snaps. In fact the Steelers played their defensive lineman a combined 174 snaps in week one. That’s 2.05 per snap, or 81 snaps with 2 defensive lineman and 4 snaps with 3.

If the Steelers only dress 5 defensive lineman this week, they will need to play Heyward, Alualu and Wormley a lot more than they did in week 1, and will need to play both Carlos Davis and Isaiah Buggs more than the 25 combined snaps they received against Buffalo.

The Steelers left Isaiahh Loudermilk inactive for week 1, it is likely they will be activating him against the Raiders, and they could go as far as to call up Henry Mondeaux from the practice squad to carry seven defensive lineman in the game, something they did a decent bit in 2020.

Size and speed are game-changers too

The difference goes a bit farther than just position usage though. The Bills aren’t just WR heavy, their main offensive weapons are all shorter, shiftier players. Check out their top 4 offensive weapons by snaps played.

Stefon Diggs, 79 snaps, 6’0” 190 lbs.
Emmanuel Sanders, 79 snaps, 5’11” 180 lbs.
Cole Beasley, 77 snaps, 5’8” 174 lbs.
Devin Singletary, 64 snaps, 5’7” 203 lbs.

Those are their main offensive weapons, and accounted for 39 of 48 targets (81.25%). The tallest one is Stefon Diggs at 6’0” and 190 lbs. and two measure in at 5’8” or less.

Now look at the Las Vegas Raiders top weapons by snap count.

Darren Waller, 81 snaps, 6’6” 255 lbs.
Bryan Edwards, 57 snaps, 6’3” 212 lbs.
Henry Ruggs III, 56 snaps, 6’0” 190
Hunter Renfrow, 47 snaps, 5’10” 185
Foster Moreau, 46 snaps, 6’4” 250
Kenyan Drake, 41 snaps, 6’1” 211
Alex Ingold, 23 snaps, 6’1” 240

I added Moreau, Drake and Ingold because they will likely play significant roles in week 2. Looking at the Raiders targets, players 6’1” and taller accounted for 35 of 52 targets (67.3%)

While the Bills were attacking the Steelers by spreading the field with wide receivers and attacking space with small, shiftier receivers, the Raiders attack vertically with size, and speed. The Raiders are old school with an approach of fast outside receivers that back up the defense, paired with Josh Jacobs powerful running, a tough FB in Alex Ingold who is also a receiving threat (4 catches, 22 yards in Week 1), and their main threat, a 6’6”, 255 lb. tight end with great hands and route running who runs a 4.46 forty yard dash, the same time the Steelers 6’1” 207 lb. All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick recorded.

With speedy receivers backing up the safeties and the run game pulling the linebackers forward, the threat Darren Waller creates in the middle of the field is a big problem.

How will the Steelers respond?

I’m not Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, or Teryl Austin, and I don’t have a crystal ball or “unnamed inside sources”, but there are a few things that seem clear to me that we will see in week 2.

First off, the Steelers are going to be playing a lot of 3-4 sets to counter the Raiders personnel groups. That means there’s no nickel backs to get in on defending Waller. That job is going to fall to a linebacker, likely Joe Schobert or one of the outside linebackers. But don’t panic, a linebacker on Darren Waller is just one half of the coverage, as there will be a safety behind Schobert on those plays to bracket Waller. You can watch for that on the broadcast, and look for the leverage of the linebacker covering Waller, that will tell you where they have help, and what routes they are responsible for defending themselves.

The other option will be a safety on Waller. While on the surface that looks like a better match up, it means that safety will largely be on an island against a physical freak of a target with ridiculous size and reach. It also means the Steelers have only one safety deep with Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton largely on islands with the Raiders speedy outside receivers. Those receivers aren’t great, but with deep balls you only need one to flip the field or break a game open. When the Steelers are in 3-4 and use a safety on Waller it will likely be Terrell Edmunds up and Minkah Fitzpatrick deep, with the possibility of the Steelers rotating Tre Norwood in some, but I doubt the Steelers would trust either Norwood or Edmunds in single-high safety too often against the speed of the Raiders.

Expect the Steelers to switch up and disguise coverage. But more importantly, expect them to rely on pressure up the middle of the pocket to prevent the quarterback from stepping into deep throws. It stood out on film that while the Ravens were getting pressure off the edge on the Raiders, they weren’t getting as much up the middle, and they gave up a good number of plays when Derek Carr was able to step up in the pocket, avoid the rush and take shots downfield (138 yards, 1 TD on 13 deep passes in Week 1). If Derek Carr can’t step into his deep throws, those throws won’t be as good, and covering those receivers deep won’t be as challenging.

With Stephon Tuitt out and the Steelers likely playing 3-4 sets, it is doubtful the Steelers will repeat their lack of blitzing from week 1. Rushing 4 men out of 3-4 sets means at least one of the outside linebackers or defensive lineman have to drop into coverage. While an outside linebacker being part of a bracket coverage on Darren Waller will happen, it isn’t an all-game strategy. But the real focus will be on the interior line and their ability to generate pressure in the middle of the line. First off because that disrupts the Raiders ability to run, letting the rest of the defense focus more on defending Darren Waller, but also to disrupt Derek Carr’s ability to throw balls on target downfield.

That means whatever the Steelers are doing to defend the Raiders offense this week, the real story will be Cameron Heyward, Tyson Alualu and the defensive line depth, and winning the battle in the trenches. Old school football.