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Steelers Film Room: Martavis Bryant is back, and the offense won’t be the same

What happens when an offense simply has way too much for a defense to account for?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Pittsburgh Steelers Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

To say the Steelers were missing Martavis Bryant last year would be an understatement. Without a viable threat to take the top off of opposing defenses, Pittsburgh simply had no one who really could threaten defensive backs game-in and game-out.

Now that Bryant is back, defenses are currently having nightmares thinking about the matchup problems that the 6’-4”, 220-pound wide receiver poses, combined with what was already a potent offense without him. We all know that throwing the deep ball is where Ben Roethlisberger excels and what he’s known for.

Thing is, unlike some of the Bryant replacements last year, who were only one-trick ponies, Bryant is much more than that. This was evident right out of the gate versus the Vikings.

It doesn’t take much to figure out the Vikings are playing Cover-1 right here. None of the defensive backs are leveraged towards a particular side. The Steelers had the perfect play-call for this defense, and Ben knew it when he saw the cornerback on Bryant giving him about a 5-yard cushion. All Bryant had to do was to push vertically to keep the cornerback backpedaling and it was over.

Bryant, of course, got those yards after the catch and just outran the vacant middle of the field as the safety greatly overpursued, which made it too easy for Bryant.

A little later into the game they finally let Bryant loose.

First off, the Vikings look to be playing a Cover-2 man Quarters coverage and Pittsburgh was in a 2nd-and-long situation. Trae Waynes, a fast player in his own right, is giving a Bryant a 10-yard cushion. Bryant is running a vertical route vs a 2-deep safety look.

Look at this subtle little move from Bryant. This moved got Waynes to turn his hips way too soon, and once you do that, the flood gates open. Waynes lets Bryant beat him in the worst possible spot and that’s inside. Harrison Smith is preoccupied with Jesse James running up the seam because the LB handed him off to the safety, so Waynes had no help.

As soon as Ben saw that Waynes turned his hips, he unloaded it immediately, as pressure was beginning to come at him. Bryant probably gets a touchdown if not for Waynes tackling him before the ball arrived.

It’s not so simple to just give a cushion on Bryant. He’s much more of a complete player than you might believe. You need to have a safety accounting for him over the top on almost every play. Too bad defenses still also have Antonio Brown to deal with.

That’s the problem, though. Most defenses don’t have a cornerback like Xavier Rhodes, who can match-up with a player like Brown on an island. Oftentimes you’ll see teams try to bracket him with a safety and, even then, he still finds ways to get open. If you’re an opposing defense, you essentially have to pick your poison.

This also brings up the entirely different point of single-high coverage. Often you see defenses employ this so they will have an extra defender in the box to help limit the run game. If you have a free-ranging safety like Earl Thomas, it makes this coverage easy to run.

But not every team has Earl Thomas and, even then, the Steelers proved two years ago that it’d be foolish to try that, as they racked up 30 points (no, they didn’t win) and accumulated over 500 yards of total offense.

Why bring this up? Because the Vikings are probably the most talented defense the Steelers will meet all year, and it’s only a matter of time before Le’Veon Bell breaks out again. If you’re a defense worrying about Bell, you’re gonna try to cheat one of your safeties into the box, which is probably going to leave Brown 1-on-1 with your best cornerback, with one high safety patrolling the deep middle.

Here’s a play to illustrate this:

First off, Roethlisberger is able to drive the defense offside with a hard count. He makes a spectacular one-handed grab on a bad snap. Bryant is looking back at Ben the whole time. Waynes must’ve thought the ball was released already, because he slows up as he looks back for the ball, and Bryant blows past him to make an outstanding grab.

Of course, if you’re playing with a single high safety, oftentimes that safety is reading the quarterback. As a quarterback, you want to manipulate that safety so he’s as far away from the play as possible. The safety on this play isn’t cheating to a particular side but he’s much too far away to be able to affect the play due to Ben holding him from chasing after the intended target.

No, this isn’t Earl Thomas, but it illustrates my point. A defense has to choose what they want to beat them. Whether it be the run or the pass, with Bryant and the gang back together and healthy, this unit is simply too much for defenses to handle.