The Steelers go up against another veteran quarterback this week in Phillip Rivers. Joe Flacco managed to throw a touchdown pass last week, but the Steelers' defense was able to force two turnovers despite allowing their first 100+ yard rusher of the season in Justin Forsett.
San Diego is definitely going to test the Steelers' run defense this week with their rookie Melvin Gordon and veteran Danny Woodhead. Though their ground game didn't produce a lot of yards last week, it was useful in setting up the pass. Rivers completed ten passes that went for 10+ yards last week, six of which came either one or two plays after a running play of four yards or more.
If the Steelers can win one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage without dedicating extra personnel to stopping the run, Rivers won't match his performance of last week when he had three touchdowns with no interceptions.
The Chargers showed that they were quick to check down to running plays against unbalanced defensive fronts, but fundamental defense can still prevent those plays from becoming big gains and force Rivers to make some good throws into coverage schemes.
Here the Browns' outside linebacker takes a step inside, falling for exactly what Woodhead's counter-step was supposed to set up. Instead he needs to attack the outside shoulder of the tackle in front of him, not allowing him to move forward and forcing Woodhead to try to either squeeze through a tight gap in the middle or go to the outside. If he attacks the outside shoulder, he should be able to disengage and force Woodhead to take a wider angle into the cornerback.
So far this season, the Steelers' linebackers have been showing improvement in fundamental skills and making these types of plays. Hopefully their aggressiveness will be a weapon against plays like this.
Here the Chargers attack the weak side of the Browns' defense and do a good job of sealing off the interior lineman. The weak inside linebacker guesses on the outside hole which allows Gordon to shoot up the middle of the defense for a huge gain. As we reviewed in the Steelers' defensive film room from last week against the Ravens, a similar play caught Sean Spence unaware and gashed the Steelers for a big gain.
This week, the team will have Ryan Shazier back in the lineup, which could change a lot. Instead of having to guess where the play is going, Shazier can rely on his speed and reaction time when he reads where Gordon/Woodhead might go to make a better play on the ball-carrier.
Also, linemen positioned within the interior such as McLendon, McCullers, Tuitt and Heyward can be another solution on plays like this. The Browns' defensive tackle is controlled and sealed off from the hole, which allows Gordon to spring free for 20+ yards. If Pittsburgh can take away these backside running plays, that's another step to force San Diego to become one-dimensional in its passing game.
Here the Chargers motioned Gordon out as a receiver in a formation where the Browns were packing the middle of the box with lots of interior players. This allows Rivers to see one-on-one coverage across the board, but he knows who he's targeting without even progressing through his reads.
The Steelers have been victimized or have been in position to be victimized by tight ends this season on multiple occasions, so they'll need to be prepared against a Chargers' offense that had been working with the young LaDarius Green but now gets back their veteran playmaker in Antonio Gates.
Keith Butler is going to dial up some exotic blitzes to overload the Chargers' blockers, but the hope is that, if they can limit San Diego's ground game, then their pass-rushers can pin their ears back while still employing a sophisticated coverage scheme that isn't so simple for Rivers to read.
Pittsburgh is going up against an offense from San Diego that has more weapons than Baltimore. Their two tight ends, running back corps, Keenan Allen and Stevie Johnson all pose threats that Butler must compensate for in his schemes for this week.
But the Steelers have an asset in their young defensive front that has performed admirably in the first quarter of the season. Their 14 sacks in four games have them on pace for 64 for the season, almost double their 2014 total of 33 sacks. In watching their performance so far, the mistakes haven't been as glaring up front and the play has definitely improved all around. As this unit continues to gel, hopefully they will make even fewer mistakes while still increasing their intensity every week.