It is no secret the Pittsburgh Steelers struggle in covering athletic tight ends. This fact dates back to the Dick LeBeau era, and continues into the Keith Butler era of defense in the Steel City. Fans of the black and gold have watched opposing tight ends run rampant over the middle of the field time and time again, and it won't be getting any easier in the next two weeks for the Steelers.
In the coming weeks the Steelers will play the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium and the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field. Both teams possess tremendous tight ends in Travis Kelce and Tyler Eifert, which presents an extremely difficult challenge for a team who has been without their most athletic linebacker, Ryan Shazier, for the past 4 weeks.
In 2015, here are the statistics opposing tight ends of put up against the Steelers defense:
Week 1 at the New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski - 5 receptions, 94 yards, 3 touchdowns
Week 2 vs. the San Francisco 49ers: Vernon Davis - 5 receptions, 62 yards
Week 3 at the St. Louis Rams: No tight end had over 20 yards receiving
Week 4 vs. the Baltimore Ravens: No tight end had over 20 yards receiving
Week 5 at the San Diego Chargers: Antonio Gates - 9 receptions, 92 yards, 2 touchdowns
Week 6 vs. the Arizona Cardinals: No tight end had over 20 yards receiving
Looking at the above statistics could give Steelers fans hope the issues against tight ends are over, but look closer and you will see the same trend still exists. The Steelers vs. elite tight ends usually ends poorly. It doesn't necessarily equate to a loss, but it doesn't usually end well. The next two weeks will have the defense facing some of the more elite tight ends in the game in Kelce and Eifert.
Take a look at their stats through 6 weeks of the 2015 season:
Travis Kelce: 6 games, 29 receptions, 39 targets, 416 yards, 14.3 average, 2 touchdowns
Tyler Eifert: 6 games, 28 receptions, 40 targets, 342 yards, 12.2 average, 6 touchdowns
Any way you slice it, these two tight ends are more than legit. The Chiefs were the laughing stock of the NFL when their streak of games without a touchdown pass to a wide receiver was possible by plenty of touchdowns thrown to Kelce. For the Bengals, Eifert being healthy has been a difference maker, especially in the red-zone. His 6 touchdowns show a trust and connection between he and Andy Dalton.
The Steelers possibly getting Ryan Shazier back in the fold this week and next will certainly help in coverage of these elite tight ends, but in no way is it a perfect plan. Keith Butler, who has done a marvelous job with this current Steelers defense, will have to pull a rabbit out of his hat to try and stop these two players and not allow them to do what Gronkowski and Gates have done earlier this season.
If they can't bottle up these players, it could be a long couple of weeks for the Steelers defense. A true test awaits, and how they respond will certainly be telling.