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Will tight ends continue to give the Steelers defense fits the rest of this season?

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It's a well-known fact that last year's iteration of the Pittsburgh Steelers had trouble covering tight ends: but how much trouble?

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, Ladarius Green, has given Steelers Nation fits throughout the preseason and early in the regular season with his ankle issues, but he also gave Pittsburgh problems in 2015 as well as a member of the Chargers.

It's a well-known fact that last year's iteration of the Pittsburgh Steelers had trouble covering tight ends: but how much trouble?

To illustrate the woes Pittsburgh had with tight ends, please see Exhibit A (that would be the table below) which charts every tight end the team faced during the 2015 regular season:

Player Tm Tgt Rec Yds TD Lng
Rob Gronkowski NW 8 5 94 3 52
Scott Chandler NW 1 1 1 1 1
Vernon Davis SF 7 5 62 0 43
Garrett Celek SF 2 2 10 0 7
Lance Kendricks STL 1 2 12 0 7
Jared Cook STL 3 1 7 0 7
Maxx Williams BAL 4 2 17 0 10
Nick Boyle BAL 4 3 12 0 8
Antonio Gates SD 11 9 92 2 12
Ladarius Green SD 5 5 50 0 24
Troy Niklas AZ 1 1 13 0 13
Darren Fells AZ 2 1 9 0 9
Travis Kelce KC 6 5 73 0 26
James O'Shaughnessy KC 2 1 2 0 2
Tyler Eifert CIN 8 4 39 0 23
Mychal Rivera OAK 3 2 16 0 8
Lee Smith OAK 2 1 10 0 10
Clive Walford OAK 5 1 1 1 1
Gary Barnidge CLE 8 6 65 1 18
Jimmy Graham SEA 8 4 75 0 36
Luke Willson SEA 1 1 12 0 12
Coby Fleener IND 8 4 20 0 8
Dwayne Allen IND 1 1 6 0 6
Tyler Eifert CIN 2 2 42 0 24
Tyler Kroft CIN 3 2 31 0 22
Owen Daniels DEN 5 2 14 0 7
Vernon Davis DEN 3 1 5 0 5
Maxx Williams BAL 5 2 16 0 9
Gary Barnidge CLE 13 8 66 0 20


Those players which had 50 or more yards receiving are highlighted in bold. Seven players exceeded the mark last season, with Cleveland's Gary Barnidge having done it twice; in both games the Browns played against the Steelers.

The good news is that Barnidge was one of the few non-household names at the position, who torched the Steelers defense last season. One would expect to have "fits" against some of the game's best such as Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Travis Kelce. Gronk's performance also opened up a touchdown catch in last year's opener for his teammate Scott Chandler, one of two tight ends highlighted above who scored on the Steelers, but didn't hit the 50+ mark.

Oakland's Clive Walford was the other TE to score without a 50+ yard game. In both Chandler's and Walford's scenarios, their touchdown catches would be their only reception in those games.

Other notable headaches for the Steelers included then-49er Vernon Davis, who padded his stats in "garbage time" after the Steelers had a solid lead, along with the pair of Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green, who both achieved the magic numbers to combine for 14 receptions, 142 yards and 2 touchdowns in the San Diego game.

Despite the big play capability, the Steelers revamped defense could improve on an otherwise surprising statistic of last season: DVOA. According to Football Outsiders, DVOA measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.

Using Football Outsiders' metrics, the Steelers ranked 5th in tight end efficiency last season with 8.6 pass attempts to TEs and 56.0 yards given up to TEs, per game. The NFL average was 7.6 pass attempts and 55 yards: the Steelers only conceded 1 more yard-per-game with an average of 1.2 more attempts against.

Interestingly enough, the teams who finished ahead of the Steelers were as follows:

  • Carolina (8.3/49.4)
  • Kansas City (8.0/42.4)
  • Green Bay (8.2/55.5)
  • Dallas (6.2/36.9)

The Super Bowl winning Denver Broncos defense ranked 8th with 8.6 attempts yielding 61.7 yards-per-game.

So what do all of these numbers mean?

It means that despite the overall thought that the Steelers didn't fare well against tight ends, they weren't as terrible as imagined. In 4 of the last 5 games of the year, the Steelers allowed a single TE to reach the same pinnacle (Barnidge) in what was a blowout game.

Pittsburgh also held division rival Cincinnati's Tyler Eifert to under 50 yards in both contests last season (though fellow Bengal Tyler Kroft's numbers would create a combined 4 catches for 73 yards when added to Eifert's totals in the second game, however the duo was still held to no scores.)

Unfortunately, the 2016 season didn't start off promising for the Steelers defense defending tight end Jordan Reed. After a strong start where Reed caught passes for 12, 14 and 13 yards, half of the next 6 attempts to Reed would fall incomplete, while the other half went for gains of 4, 5, and 5 yards.

With the game in control, Cousins would connect on one more long pass to Reed for 11 yards with 1:49 remaining in the fourth quarter.

In similar fashion, with the Steelers leading 24-9 and already in a prevent defense, Pittsburgh relinquished a 20 yard catch to Vernon Davis (his only target and catch of the game) in which Davis gained 14 yards after the catch.

Overall the Steelers had a fairly strong night against the position, one in which ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden hyped as being a 3-headed monster of Reed, Davis and Niles Paul (the latter who only played on 6 snaps.) Four of the ten longest plays for the Redskins were by tight ends, and the position was held to 8 catches for 84 yards and no scores; a promising outlook for the defense, if for only one game.

Against arguably the most dynamic tight end duo in the league, Rob Gronkowski and Marttellus Bennett of the New England Patriots, the Steelers allowed Gronk to have 4 catches for 93 yards and a touchdown, while Bennett had one catch for 5 yards.

After 7 weeks of the season, I'm of the opinion the Steelers will be just fine against the position the rest of this season. Even if they give up a few big games, it may be part of a larger game plan: considering the Steelers gave up 50+ 8 times in 7 games last season, they won 4 of those games. (Also consider, against Kansas City, the team was without Ben Roethlisberger.)

That makes me slightly optimistic that tight ends won't destroy the Pittsburgh's defense throughout the entire 2016 campaign.

Joe is the founder of Steel City Underground, a Pittsburgh Steelers blog and podcast. Follow SCU on Facebook and Twitter.