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How the Steelers can slow down the Bengals’ aerial attack

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense will have their hands full in the AFC North, but how can they slow down the Cincinnati aerial attack?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

As we enter the reasonably quiet period of the NFL season between the draft and the start of training camp, I thought it would be a good time to break out a new feature. For the next few weeks, I’m going to write a series of “Game Plan” articles that examine some of the schematic decisions the Steelers made last season. The series will look at how they attacked certain situations and opponents and at how, given the changes made to the staff and the roster, they might adjust their approach in 2022.

Pittsburgh’s opening opponent, the reigning AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals, have built one of the best passing attacks in the league behind young stars Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. In two games against the Steelers last season, which Cincinnati won by a combined score of 65-20, Burrow went 34-42 passing for a completion percentage of 80.9. He threw for 362 yards and four touchdowns, two of which went to Chase. The Bengals are the new kings of the AFC North, and to reclaim that throne, Pittsburgh will have to topple them. That begins with devising a scheme that will defend Cincinnati’s passing attack more effectively.

How might they do so? That’s the subject of the first article in our “Game Plan” series.

In the first match-up between the teams last September, the Steelers threw a bunch of coverages at Burrow in an attempt to confuse him. They gave him some cover-2 and cover-6 early on, and played a football version of a box-and-one where they locked on Chase while running zone behind it. This resulted in an interception on Cincinnati’s second drive:

Chase, aligned to the bottom of the screen, was blanketed by corner Cam Sutton (20) while linebacker Joe Schobert (93) provided inside help. Safety Terrell Edmunds took the vertical to that side of the field. On the other side, the Steelers played cover-2, with linebacker Devin Bush (55) carrying the inside receiver up the seam. Burrow believed he had this open because safety Minkah Fitzpatrick widened as if he were going to defend the route to the boundary. Bush’s tight coverage forced a high throw, however, and Fitzpatrick broke back on the seam route. Fitzpatrick batted the ball into the air, and Edmunds picked it off.

This was a nice design. The Steelers took Chase away by jamming him and reducing the space in which he had to operate. They then forced Burrow to beat them with a good throw into a small window, which he was unable to do.

The Bengals didn’t win the AFC last season without being able to adjust, however. They realized Pittsburgh was clogging the middle of the field, and that Chase was often in single coverage outside. This allowed them to begin exploiting those looks with routes that attacked the boundary.

First, Burrow found Chase (top right) on a sideline timing route. Chase left Sutton grabbing at air with a wicked release, and Burrow put the ball on the money. This play converted a 3rd and 8 to keep alive a drive that ended in a touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd.

Then, just before halftime, with the contest tied at 7, Burrow hit Chase on a vertical route for the go-ahead score. The Steelers elected to blitz, which they did by bringing five rushers and rotating Edmunds down out of a two-high shell. This put them in cover-1, with Chase (top left) isolated on James Pierre (42). When the pass rush didn’t get home, the Bengals capitalized:

Chase caught another touchdown in the second half to put the game out of reach. The Steelers brought five again and played cover-1 behind it. The Bengals picked up the stunt, giving Burrow time to throw. Burrow got Chase isolated in space to the outside. Chase (split wide right) turned Joe Haden around with a jab step towards the pylon before breaking across his face, where Burrow found him for the score:

The big takeaway from this first contest was that if Pittsburgh brought five, and played man coverage in the secondary, the pass rush needed to get to Burrow. The Steelers didn’t sack Burrow once, and with time to throw, he found open receivers, completing 14 of 18 passes. Their strategy to clog the middle of the field and force Burrow to throw outside the numbers made sense. But without a pass rush, the coverage couldn’t hold up. This was particularly true against Chase, who was too good to lock down one-on-one, no matter who covered him.

Unfortunately, things got worse in the second meeting. The Steelers were crushed, 41-10, in a contest that wasn’t that close. They did manage to sack Burrow twice, but neither had much impact. One came on a 3rd-and-goal play on a bootleg that didn’t fool anyone. The other came near the end of the half, with Cincinnati in front by three touchdowns.

From a schematic standpoint, it was Cincinnati who made the key adjustment. Rather than roll out the same game-plan they’d used in September, for which the Steelers were likely prepared, the Bengals attacked with bigger personnel. They used heavy doses of 12, 22 and jumbo groupings with an extra lineman on the field to force the Steelers into scenarios like the following:

Heavy looks from Cincinnati like this eight-man line put the Steelers in an unfavorable defensive structure

This got the Bengals into run looks with which they were comfortable. By Week 12, when this game was played, the Steelers had shown their run defense was poor. So, by going big, Cincinnati used their personnel to attack that weakness. These heavy groupings also forced the Steelers to drop a safety and load the box, all but assuring they would play cover-1. This was the look Burrow had picked apart in the first game. Now, by dictating coverage with their personnel, the Bengals gave him a chance to do it again. Burrow obliged, completing 20-24 passes for 196 yards.

The Bengals also manipulated Pittsburgh’s coverages by running ran the ball well on 1st down. In building a 24-3 halftime lead, they rushed 10 times for 55 yards on 1st down snaps. By the 2nd quarter, the Steelers were reacting as Cincinnati had hoped. They were rolling their safeties, bringing the blitz and playing cover-1 behind it. It didn’t take long for the Bengals to capitalize. This play looks just like the touchdowns to Chase in the first contest. The Steelers blitz and play man-coverage, the Bengals pick it up, and Burrow hits a receiver (Tee Higgins) for a touchdown:

Cincinnati clearly won the match-up on the field last season. But, by exploiting Pittsburgh’s cover-1 scheme in the first game, then finding ways to force the Steelers to play it again in the rematch, they won the X and O battle, too. The Steelers will have to be better in both respects to compete with them come September.

To do so, they should take a cue from Vic Fangio, whose Denver defense held Burrow to 157 yards passing and 15 points last season. Fangio’s scheme looks simple but is actually quite complicated. The complexity derives from his use of pre-snap cover-2 alignments before rotating post-snap to a different coverage. To the quarterback, the defense always looks the same. Then, at the snap, it transforms. The Steelers have done some of this in recent seasons, most commonly to move from cover-2 to cover-1. Fangio’s system allows the defense to rotate to just about anything: cover-1, cover-3, cover-6, or to one of Fangio’s most effective schemes — Cloud coverage.

Cloud works like cover-3, with two safeties and a corner defending the deep thirds. But it’s essentially double coverage, with the low corner and one of the deep safeties assigned to a prescribed receiver. Against Cincinnati, Fangio often “clouded” over Chase, denying him the opportunity to get deep. Chase caught just one pass for 3 yards in the contest. It wasn’t just Chase who was bottled up, though. Excluding a 56 yard hook-up between Burrow and Boyd, the Bengals attempted 24 passes that netted just 80 total yards.

Denver’s Cloud coverage, which they used effectively last season against Cincinnati

The Steelers have not shown many looks where they start in one zone and rotate to another, like Fangio does. Playing some Cloud against the Bengals would have two purposes, then — it would give them something to digest that Pittsburgh has not yet shown, while providing effective coverage against Chase.

This gets at another way the Steelers can slow down Cincinnati’s passing attack. Last year, when faced with a tough road opener in Buffalo against another great young quarterback, the Steelers came up with a game plan that was unlike anything they’d shown on film. They confounded Josh Allen with a defense composed entirely of nickel and dime looks, and did not play a single snap of base 3-4 all night. Buffalo stubbornly refused to run against Pittsburgh’s smaller personnel, electing to throw 54 times. Allen grew frustrated trying to jam the ball in against seven and eight man coverages, and the Buffalo offense scuffled in route to a 23-16 defeat.

This season, the Steelers are in position to do something similar. With the retirement of Keith Butler, the elevation of Teryl Austin to coordinator and the addition of defensive assistant Brian Flores, they can essentially erase the tape from 2021. Cincinnati will certainly look at what Pittsburgh did on defense last season. But they will also have to look at what Austin did when he ran the defense in Detroit and Cincinnati. And, they’ll have to study what Flores did as the head coach in Miami. The Bengals have a lot of film to digest, and the Steelers, with all summer to prepare, can get as creative as they want. Whether it’s Cloud coverage or something else, they need to show Cincinnati schemes for which they have not prepared.

Finally, there is the pass rush to consider. T.J. Watt was shut out against Cincinnati last season, recording no sacks in either game. The Bengals used a variety of schemes to block him. They chipped him with tight ends and running backs, slid their protection towards him and occasionally left him one-on-one with a tackle. Burrow had both time and a comfortable pocket from which to throw, which made things too easy for him:

A typical Cincy protection scheme: Watt (left edge) gets chipped by the tight end and then overtaken by the tackle

Watt may win some of those individual battles he lost last season, but the Steelers can’t rely on that. They will have to generate pressure in other ways. This is where Brian Flores can have an immediate impact. Flores was brilliant at disguising his rushes in Miami, often using a “mug” look to muddy an opponent’s protection scheme. The Steelers should tap into his expertise when devising their game plan this summer:

A typical Flores “mug” stunt, which dares an offense to diagnose who is coming and who is dropping

Pittsburgh will have their hands full with a Week 1 road test at Cincinnati. For them to have any shot to win, they’ll have to do a better job defending the Bengals’ passing game. Lessening their dependence on cover-1 schemes and better disguising their coverages and blitzes may be the way to do it.