I’ve been to Pittsburgh.
I ate the stupid fat sandwich with the french fries in it while dipping it into that ancient Pennsylvania beer that used be stored in handmade barrels deep within the Earth. I went to a Pirates game, so I can say the thing people who have been to a Pirates game say when the topic of attended ballparks come up: Oh, it’s beautiful, you have to go one day. I walked around the skeletons of dinosaurs in the museum birthed from America’s ancient monopoly, and there is still a note on my desk that reads: BUY BOOK ON DINOSAURS. I tossed a glass bottle I had leftover from a trip to the juice store into one of the watery triplets where it would eventually roll down into the confluence, with a message inside, reminding the finder they’re going to die one day. I drank beers in some shanty town by the river where I was told time and time again I’m very tall.
Pittsburgh is a beautiful place. It’s one of those American cities that shouldn’t have all the people residing in it. A jungle surrounds it. Watching the three rivers clasp and writhe together into murkier shades is better than anything your phone has to offer. It should have been a National Park instead.
At the same time, it’s a very stupid place, because to be a cool, sordid hipster there is to drink tequila, say y’all, and listen to Wal-Mart F-150 charcoal trout line country music. The things down here in Texas that are ubiquitous are exotic in a bastardized form in Pittsburgh. Orange and yellow cheese, shredded lettuce, turgid maroon tomato paste, brisk salt rimmed drinks, rigid rotating animatronic ungulates, and so, so, so, so much Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney. Pittsburgh’s idea of heaven is the We Do music video with Mexican food that’s slightly better than what’s over at the purple bell.
In this sense, we have what they don’t have, but they have what the Houston Texans don’t have. They have an organizational culture that is nearly impossible to fabricate in post-modern sports. Players scouted for what’s above the neck, physicality and toughness, and a coaching staff that strips the players of their egos at the door. Steelers know what it means to be a Steeler.
Jack Easterby and Bill O’Brien believe a lack of organizational unity is what this iteration of Houston football is missing. Culture is the womb great football teams are cooked in. To Easterby and O’Brien, this is the missing link needed to push Houston out of the Divisional Round mud. It isn’t the drag-flat read option offense, the failed fourth down decisions, the rash team building strategies that treat the team more like a 2004 Honda Accord than a NFL franchise, the front office structure that no other team has, poor offensive line play, or sending players out for more than what they get back. No, it’s not knowing what a Texan is. That’s why Houston gave up 41 straight points to the Kansas City Chiefs in January.
Turn the Taurus into a Pisces. Out came T. (ough) S. (mart) D. (ependable). An 0-2 start isn’t surprising. It’s simply a reaffirmation that the Texans are the Texans and remain stuck behind the best teams in the AFC. Now they’re stuck while fighting a lack of draft capital and with a young talent at quarterback who’s going to have a $35 million cap hit. T.S.D. can’t counteract the fact that the Texans need better players and better decision makers. The “T” stands for tough instead of what’s really important—talent.
But hey, at least it sounds nice as a Motivational Monday tweet. The enchiladas are pretty good.
1. MURDER THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE
The Steelers have the best front seven in football, and it’s my own personal favorite since the 2018 Houston Texans. I wrote the following about it earlier this week in TEN THINGS:
It’s T.J. Watt detangling offensive tackles from the block with rapid rips and dips. Bud Dupree closing the space from the backside unblocked, crushing quarterbacks and ball carriers, and creating turnovers through violence. Tyson Alualu at nose tackle, somehow, after 17 years in the league, has crafted himself from solid pro to great run stopper. Cameron Heyward mixing bullrushes and a bull dog run defense together all in one bloody soup with bits of bone for croutons. Devin Bush Jr. playing 1990s middle of the field coverage, turning receivers into tombstones, and the middle of the field into a cemetery for them to lay forever in. Vince Williams cannon balling free on blitzes. And Stephon Tuitt, wry, limber and slippery.
In the pass game, Pittsburgh doesn’t have to blitz. They can create pressure with three alone. As long as some combination of T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Cameron Heyward are on the field, hell is imminent for opposing quarterbacks.
T.J. Watt has 3 hurries, 2 knockdowns, 2.5 sacks, and 8 pressures to start the 2020 season. He’s one of those pass rushing deities who combines the athleticism to beat the offensive tackle to the point attack, with the skill to disarm the block, and use his outside rushes to create inside moves.
Bud Dupree has 6 hurries, 2 knockdowns, 1.0 sack, and 9 pressures. Since T.J. has been drafted he’s molded his body, and put on the strength needed to be a complete player. He’s no longer an incessant Vic Beasley edge rush bend novelty that requires interior pressure. Dupree can rush inside and out, and smashes decimating run stops that fade the backwards arrow on the remote.
He’s especially great at closing in space from the backside of plays. Quarterbacks who try to create something from nothing, ending up becoming nothing, splattered, a bloody skidmark wiped across the field.
With these two on the outside, the quarterback is suffocated with a plastic bag over his head.
The simple answer is the quarterback has to climb the pocket. But with Heyward and Tuitt on the interior, and now even Alualu providing some pass rush juice, all this does is turn the quarterback into an orange little fish drawn to the gummy worm like tongue of the snapping turtle. Heyward has 3 hurries, 3 knockdowns, 0.5 sacks, and 7 pressures. He’s the best interior rusher they have who wins with hard working blue collar relentless bull rushes.
Pittsburgh doesn’t need to blitz. They could create enough pressure with three and four alone. The fun takes place during the mutilation, not during the murder. Pro Football Reference’s ‘Advanced Stats’ from FOXCOM has Pittsburgh with a 61.7% blitz rate (1st). Baltimore is second at 47.1% for reference.
Their absurd blitz rate is probably because they count every Watt and Dupree rush as a blitz, but slot corner Mike Hilton has blitzed 19 times and picked up 2 sacks, and Devin Bush and Vince Williams have blitzed 15 and 13 times.
The slot corner blitzes are especially diabolical. Pittsburgh will roll from cover three to cover one, bring the slot blitz, and adjust their coverage behind it. With attention devoted to the front seven, Hilton is usually forgotten.
They’ll pull off the same witchcraft with safety Terrell Edmunds. Matching where the running back is in the formation is another way to create free rushes. Whenever the back takes off for a swing pass the defensive back is unhindered. This sack from Edmunds decapitated Denver’s game winning drive attempt.
In the run game they’ll bring it too. They held the New York Giants to 29 rushing yards on 20 carries. They lead the league with 22 run tackles for a loss. Their ability to match heavy personnel with creative run blitzes is the main reason why.
They’re an impossible team to run vertical combo blocking runs against. Even the best offensive lines in the league will struggle to drive their front off the line of scrimmage and come off strong enough to deal with Devin Bush and Vince Williams. That being said, their aggression can be used against them. Clipped ears, frothing mouth, they chase movement along the line of scrimmage. Outside zone plays open up cutback opportunities. Denver had rushes for 10, 13, 16, and 17 by shaving them against the grain.
It’s going to be imperative for Houston to block the backside of their runs well against Pittsburgh. One mistake has derailed their rushing attack this season. Missed blocks, especially at the tight end position, allows safeties and corners to suffocate cutback lanes, making it impossible for the back to escape from the tsunami Vince Williams and others bring on run downs.
Pittsburgh is one of the rare teams with a top pass defense and run defense. Most teams are able to focus on one portion of their defense, and usually, it leads to a severe imbalance between the two. But because of their front seven’s ability to create negative plays, and control the game, they are elite at stopping both the pass and run.
2. BIG BEN’S TELEPATHY
Ben Roethlisberger is back after repairing his elbow in 2019. Praise be. I couldn’t handle another season of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges again. This version of Roethlisberger is different than the image you have of him in your mind. What do you see? You see a lumbering hockey mask wearing figure who is impossible to take down in the pocket, is able to create big plays on the move despite his size, and wins downfield.
This hasn’t been him so far. Currently he’s averaging 6.6 average intended yards a target, which puts him in the same cul-de-sac as Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo. His aggressiveness rating is only 8.2%. This version of the Steelers is spread, pick and pop, get the ball out quick passing that operates primarily from trips and bunch formations. Roethlisberger has nine different receiving options in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Eric Ebron, Benny Snell, James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, and Vance McDonald. All of this makes it hard to get to this monster quarterback.
He’s been far from perfect though. He’s still figuring out how to play perfect football again. His feet can be wonky. Little ball placement errors limit the offense. Like this throw to Johnson is low and slightly behind him, turning an easy completion, into a complicated one, turning a first down into a punt. The spread passing attack is their primary means to move the ball because their rushing attack has been dreadful. These little mistakes make the offense swampy.
The manufacturing is dusty too. Most of his roll outs lead to the ball being thrown out of bounds, and Steelers’ players shearing their tongue hoping he doesn’t make mistakes. With the defense the Steelers have they only need average quarterback play to win games. Losing the turnover battle derides this. Floppy and awkward throws like this without an open angle are killer.
Pittsburgh has the speed needed to have a great deep passing game, but they haven’t meshed just yet. It’s still a work in progress for a returning quarterback playing with a youthful speeding ticket wide receiver group.
He was able to hit downfield twice last week. One was a fade route to Chase Claypool against cover three in a one v. one matchup.
The other was the rare pocket escape where Roethlisberger had someone open. Johnson was able to outrun the coverage horizontally, get behind the safety crashing down on the post-corner combination, and slide to snag down a throw slightly behind him.
Despite the defensive coordinator change, Houston has the same short v. deep pass defense splits again. Houston is allowing 7.7 yards allowed per short pass (31st) and has a DVOA of 27.9%. They’re once again a top five deep pass defense. Houston is playing cover three instead of cover four, and has had success playing zone coverage. In the span of an offseason, with roughly the same defense, they’ve done a great job passing receivers and minimizing easy throws, and blown coverage opportunities.
The problems have come when they play man coverage though. Houston doesn’t have the horses to play pure man without getting burned. Usually they pair this with big blitzes, that have generated enough pressure to make up for it.
This weekend it’s going to be a refurbished version of Roethlisberger who uses telepathy to float the ball from sideline to sideline and spread defenses out against a shoddy short passing defense.
3. SHOOT IT
As great as Pittsburgh’s pass defense has been, that doesn’t mean its heel isn’t exposed. They’re currently 1st in short pass defense DVOA at -45.2%, but are 28th in deep pass defense DVOA at 87.9% (28th).
Defensive backs get spoiled playing with a pass rush like this. Subconsciously, they’ll take plays off, expecting for the rush to get there, and get caught flat footed. This touchdown to Darius Slayton is a perfect example of this. Steve Nelson (#22) is never sure of his feet during this entire route, and gets lost on the slight widening of the route. Joe Haden (#23) stares into the backfield and is unable to travel to the catch point on time. It’s also a great play design by the New York Giants. Against cover three, the deep dig draws Minkah Fitzpatrick (#39), and opens up the route for Slayton.
Deep in breaking routes can be schemed against the Steelers’ defense. Denver was able to use Jerry Jeudy well to create middle of the field throws behind the first level of the defense.
Great defenses, like Pittsburgh’s, funnel the ball into difficult places. These throws are open, but they’re long developing. The question for the offense is if they can pass protect long enough and pick up the blitz, and if the quarterback has the heart to stay in the pocket to deliver. You can hit the middle of the field, but it comes at a cost, and more often than not, the rush devours the quarterback before the throw is open.
The key for offenses is to use their routes to clear out coverage and open for others. Noah Fant caught two big corner routes from this. On each of these plays, the outside receiver draws the deep third receiver, opening up the sideline for Fant. On the first, Bush is unprepared covering the seam for him to leak out to the sideline, and on the second, Bush is ready, but he just gets beat.
Traditional vertical routes are throw aways against Pittsburgh. Their corners zone turn and squeeze the sideline. Go routes and things of that nature are wasted plays.
There are dozens of things missing from Houston’s offense this year, one of which, has been their deep passing game. So far, Deshaun Watson is 5/14 (35.7%) for 135 yards, has a touchdown to interception ratio of 1:2, and is averaging 13.5 yards an attempt on these throws.
Houston has been able to create some success on deep crossing routes. Brandin Cooks caught a big post against outside leverage. Yet, Watson was barely able to get this ball away because Laremy Tunsil turns into the end man on the line of scrimmage, leaving him unprepared for the looper.
Watson has to be prepared to take some vicious shots if they’re going to stretch Pittsburgh and attack their weakness. So far this season, he’s been hesitant to do so. He hasn’t trusted his offensive line. The alarm clock is set early. He scampers and takes off after two seconds or so, and settles for 4.5 yards, instead of hanging in there to find something deep.
One of the keys to this game is the tight end position. The seam is usually open off play action. Darren Fells is too rigid and slow, and has shown time and time again, he can’t be used in this way. Jordan Akins has an average depth of target of 4.8 yards. Using him to stretch the seams to take advantage of the space created by outside receivers is an imperative opportunity.
The Tim Kelly super vertical super cool kill em all offense, has been flat and horizontal, boring, and way too safe. It’s going to be a warzone at the line of scrimmage, but Houston can’t let that deter them from taking shots downfield.
4. PICK UP THE BLITZ
Houston’s offensive line has been atrocious this season, even after investing three first round picks, three second round picks, and more than $30 million of their cap space to it. Last week, like the Kansas City game, the same blitz pick up mistakes, and run blocking errors limited their offense.
The talent hasn’t matched the performance. Watson has a pressure rate of 29.4%, which is the 32nd highest rate in the league. Teams have picked up on Houston’s blitz pick up issues that stem back to last season. They’ve honed in on usually bringing more than four. Watson has been blitzed 31 times this season, the fourth most times in the league. This has led to negative plays, zeroes, and Watson scrambling for an inefficient 4.9 yards per scramble. His nine scrambles tie him with Kyler Murray for the most in the league.
The same simple mistakes keep obliterating their pass protection. Too often, they’re dipping their heads into stunts, not saying square, and allowing the looper to come through starving and slobbering.
For example, Max Scharping (#74) dips his head when the defensive tackle loops wide. This leaves him unable to pick up the crashing edge defender. Rather than operate from the pocket, Watson is forced to scramble. The pass to Keke Coutee comes later than it should. As a result, Marlon Humphrey is able to hit Coutte immediately after the pass arrives, instead of allowing him to catch, turn, get upfield, and see the hit. These little errors add up and make a larger impact on the play than what the surface level indicates.
And here, it’s Zach Fulton committing the same sin.
Clean throws like this are rare for this offense. Houston actually picks up the blitz. Watson is comfortable and able to hit Kenny Stills on a quick out route.
Often, Watson is instead suffocating and scampering, trying to create gold from ore, and has been unable to this season.
Watson and Nick Martin have to arrange their pass protection in the correct places. This week, they’re dealing with an even more devious front than the one that sliced them up last week. The same simple errors can’t continue. For Houston to have the time needed to attack Pittsburgh downfield, and find some semblance of verticality in this offense, the blitz pick up has to improve right now.
5. NEVER, SAY NEVER
One of the problems Pittsburgh has had in their two wins is they haven’t run the ball well. Right now their run offense DVOA is -44.2%, which is 30th. Their lack of rushing attack elongates the game. They’re stuck spread out, and quick passing incompletions stop the the clock, which gave Denver multiple chances to come back against them.
In the first two weeks of the season they’ve had problems blocking the second level. Both running backs have had issues finding any space after the line of scrimmage. Matt Feilier has been one of the key culprits doing this. These blocks are vital for a typical power rushing attack. The first combo block has to get to the second level, and the puller cleans out from there. Usually the first combo has missed their second assignment, leading to easy tackles.
Their run game against Denver was overinflated by one 59 yard James Conner rush, which was opened up because of a rare Kareem Jackson miss.
Without that run, Pittsburgh had 20 carries for 50 yards, and averaged 2.3 yards a carry. And of those 50 yards, most of them came from draw plays out of spread formations, where the defensive personnel and splits created rushing yards, more than the blocking did.
The good news for Pittsburgh is All-Pro guard David DeCastro is back. He’ll take over at right guard for rookie Kevin Dotson. With him back in the lineup, they have an incredible puller who can clear out rush lanes, and he’s excellent as the inside blocker, at getting up to the backside linebacker on their power run plays. Pittsburgh needs for DeCastro to be the cure to their run game ills. If not, this week, will be like last week, where even if Pittsburgh gets a lead, and suffocates the offense, there will be enough drives to allow the opponent to never be fully out of it.
6. FAN’S NOTES
Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity—perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.