The NFL is just a few weeks from training camp, which means national pundits are coming forward with their predictions. For Steelers fans, the news is not good. Most have Pittsburgh finishing third or even fourth in the AFC North. Meanwhile, a recent ESPN mock draft for 2023 anticipates a poor season ahead. They have the Steelers picking 6th overall. Vegas doesn’t think highly of the Steelers either, pegging their over/under win total at 7.5.
The skepticism is understandable. This will be the first season since 2005 the Steelers are without Ben Roethlisberger as their starting quarterback. Their current group of Mitchell Trubisky, rookie Kenny Pickett and veteran backup Mason Rudolph doesn’t exactly “wow” people. Pittsburgh is widely regarded as lacking at the game’s most important position.
There’s a flip side to that story, though. The Steelers may not be particularly sexy at quarterback, but their counterparts aren’t exactly Beyonce in tights. Barring injuries, the Steelers will see fourteen different opposing quarterbacks this season. Five have never faced them. The remaining nine have posted a combined regular season record against them of 18-18. That number gets worse when you subtract Tom Brady. Pittsburgh’s long-time nemesis is 9-3 in the regular season against the Steelers. Minus Brady, the remaining eight are 9-15. So, while many anticipate the quarterback play in Pittsburgh to be a weak spot, the signal-callers the Steelers will oppose either have no experience, or have had limited success, against Pittsburgh in their careers.
This article does not suggest the Steelers will win games simply because many of the quarterbacks they will face have struggled against them previously. It does, though, offer a counter to those who discount Pittsburgh’s chance at success because of the quality of their quarterback play. If Pittsburgh is not especially strong at the position, what about the quarterbacks they will face? That should factor into the equation, too.
Here’s a breakdown of those quarterbacks based on how they’ve fared against the Steelers. Their mediocrity may give Pittsburgh a better chance at success than many anticipate.
The Studs: Tom Brady, Derek Carr, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen
The four quarterbacks in this tier have a combined 15-6 record against the Steelers. They’ve thrown 46 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. The Steelers have sacked them an average of 1.8 times per game and their cumulative QBR is 99.6.
In other words, ugh.
The sack number is particularly problematic. When the Steelers get to the quarterback, they are one of the best defenses in the NFL. When they do not, they struggle, especially against elite QBs.
Carr shredded them for 373 yards on 39 attempts last season. The Steelers sacked him twice. Burrow’s offense put up 65 points on the Steelers in two games. Pittsburgh sacked him twice, too. They’ve sacked Allen just five times in three contests, although they did frustrate him last season by using exclusively nickel and dime looks, falling back into coverage and taking away his throwing lanes. Brady has been nearly untouchable over the years, playing comfortably from the pocket and picking apart Pittsburgh’s defense like he’s coasting through a 7-on-7 drill:
There is some good news, however. The Steelers initially face Burrow in Week 1, where they’ll have all summer to devise a game plan for which Cincinnati is unprepared, like they did for Buffalo in last season’s opener. With new defensive architects in Teryl Austin and Brian Flores, Pittsburgh can throw looks at Burrow he has not yet seen from the Steelers. This provides hope for an otherwise tough road test to start the season.
The Raiders are potentially scary, having added free agent receiver Davante Adams. Adams and tight end Darren Waller provide Carr two of the best in the league at their respective positions. The offensive line, however, is an Achilles heel. PFF rates it as the 29th best unit in the NFL. Silver and Black Pride, the Vegas version of BTSC, describes the line situation heading into training camp as “fluid.” That’s never a good adjective when discussing a position group that depends on consistency to develop.
Then there’s Brady. The soon-to-be 45-year-old plays behind one of the best offensive lines in the league in Tampa Bay. Blitzing Brady has proven to be fatal over the years (as proof, re-watch the GIF above). The best way to frustrate him is to get pressure rushing four. This is how the New York Giants beat him in two Super Bowls and how the Steelers, in 2019, held Brady in check in a 17-10 win. New England was flagged for five holding calls in that contest. Most were the result of a ferocious effort by Pittsburgh’s front, like we see here from Stephon Tuitt on this inside rush move:
Brady has lost some of his ability to move about the pocket, where he was once magnificent at sliding away from pressure and staying on platform. He turtled up and ate sacks more last season than he’s done throughout his career. That’s a natural consequence of aging and not wanting to take hits. We saw it with Roethlisberger, who was one of the toughest men to ever play the position. We’re seeing it now with Brady. If Pittsburgh can get a push with their interior rushers and get clutter at Brady’s feet, they can make him uncomfortable.
Burrow will be the toughest of the bunch to corral. His pocket presence is excellent, and his young legs provide him an elusiveness Brady no longer possesses. Carr and Allen are mobile, too, but neither has this sort of poise and vision under duress:
Getting to Burrow relies on maintaining the integrity of rush lanes. In the GIF above, Kansas City’s Melvin Ingram (24) comes on a loop stunt through the B-gap. He fails to get square, though, and the guard washes him down, providing an escape route for Burrow. The Steelers must seal these lanes as they push the pocket to give their outside rushers a chance.
Pittsburgh plays five games against these four quarterbacks. Three are at home, where they are generally tougher on defense. They are unlikely to win a majority of these games, but if they can win two it will set them up nicely considering the quality of quarterback play they will face the rest of the way.
The Duds: Lamar Jackson, Jacoby Brissett, Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota, Baker Mayfield
The story changes abruptly with these five quarterbacks. They have won 3 of 12 games against the Steelers, with 19 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, a sack rate of 4.2 and a combined QBR of 79.7. Pittsburgh has generally made their lives miserable by blitzing the daylights out of them, disguising coverages effectively and creating confusion.
This is particularly true of Mayfield, who went 2-5 in Cleveland with a 4.1 sack rate and a 76.9 QBR against Pittsburgh. Mayfield, who is projected to be the starter in Carolina, has often been flustered by Pittsburgh’s coverage disguises, causing him to hold the football too long and take sacks, like we see here:
Those pump fakes reveal a quarterback who is unsure of where to go with the football. This is often the result of misreading the coverage. The pre-snap look in this GIF is limited, but the soft corners Pittsburgh shows seem to indicate zone. At the snap, though, the Steelers play match-man, locking on once they diagnose the route combinations. Mayfield fails to anticipate this, and his indecision gives T.J. Watt time to get home for the sack.
Lamar Jackson is a similar story. Jackson is 1-2 against Pittsburgh, with a 59.0 completion percentage, four touchdowns, six interceptions and a 67.4 QBR. Jackson has rushed an average of 63 yards per game, but his miscues as a passer have off-set the effectiveness of his running.
Pittsburgh’s coverage disguises have baffled Jackson at times, forcing him into costly mistakes. Take this play from 2020. The circled defender in the photo below is linebacker Bud Dupree. Jackson expects Dupree to rush on this 3rd and 6 play, as he customarily would. Because of this, he targets the inside receiver to the trips formation to his left, who appears to have a clean release up the seam:
Dupree doesn’t rush, though. He falls back into coverage, closing off the seam. Jackson has an option, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but he doesn’t take it. Instead, he comes off the read and throws, almost blindly, to a slant from the opposite side of the field. Linebacker Robert Spillane is sitting on that route, and he easily picks it off and takes it to the house:
This play underscores Jackson’s limitations in conceptualizing routes and coverages. Even though he was fooled, he should have known that as Dupree carried the seam route, a window was opening for the slant coming underneath it. Not throwing there was mistake number one. The bigger error was in thinking a slant to an inside receiver on the opposite side of the field would be open. A quarterback can never be late with the football near the hashes. Defenses value that real estate far too much to allow quarterbacks the luxury of pitching the ball there on a whim. To throw across the middle, the timing and read of the coverage must be precise. Jackson had neither on this play, and paid for it dearly.
The Steelers play seven games against these quarterbacks. There is little chance they will sweep all seven. But winning four or five is not out of the question, especially considering their past success against these players.
The Newbies: Mac Jones, Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Jameis Winston, Zach Wilson
None of the quarterbacks in this tier should scare anyone. Several, however, play in offenses that accentuate their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. New England did that with Jones last season, turning him into an efficient passer with a high completion percentage (67.6) who rarely took risks. Philadelphia did the same with Hurts, surrounding him with one of the best rushing attacks in the league and allowing him to get out of the pocket and be creative. Neither Jones nor Hurts are game-changers on their own. But, within their respective systems, they can both be effective.
The others are wild cards. Tua has a new head coach in Miami, who will bring a very different scheme than the RPO-heavy one he executed last year. Winston has been a turnover machine at times whose penchant for risk-taking plays into the hands of a defense that pressures the quarterback like the Steelers. And Wilson has a long way to go for a franchise that must integrate a host of new players into the lineup. The Jets start the season by playing all four AFC North teams, and could be 0-3 when they head to Pittsburgh in Week 4.
It’s hard to say how the Steelers will fare against these players. But for quarterbacks who are unfamiliar with Pittsburgh’s blitzes and disguises, the learning curve can be tough. The Steelers should win three, and perhaps even four of these games, with only the contest at Philadelphia looking daunting.
With all of this considered, it’s not hard to see the Steelers going 10-7. That’s optimistic, for sure, but is it unreasonable? I don’t think so. The Steelers could steal a game or two from the top tier by finding a way to get to those quarterbacks. They could extend their domination over the middle tier by continuing to create confusion with blitzes and disguises. And they could fluster the newbies by playing relentless Steeler defense as a means of introduction. If they can do these things, it won’t be shocking if they prove wrong the national people who were quick to write them off.