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Opponent preview: Pittsburgh Steelers, defending the line

Are there vulnerabilities in the Pittsburgh defense?

On paper the Buffalo Bills are in for a rough ride against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams score 27.8 points per game, putting their offensive output in a dead heat. The defensive statistics are where the problems begin. Buffalo is allowing 25.5 points per game, more than a full touchdown worse than the Steelers at 17.6 per game. However, Washington proved that Pittsburgh isn’t invulnerable.

Diving into aggregate stats show some weaknesses that Buffalo might be able to take advantage of on Sunday Night Football. Let’s take a look.


Play 1

As I often do, I started the opponent preview process by looking at aggregated data. In particular I’m a big fan of average numbers when factoring in play direction. These can often point you toward trouble spots. In the case of the Steelers, there appeared to be glaring weaknesses defending runs to the edges. On average they allow the most yards in the league off the left end, and the second most yards off the right end. Interestingly, Pittsburgh is attacked in those areas very infrequently. This makes the data susceptible to a couple big plays throwing things off. But still, similar data on both sides of the line suggest some validity to this idea.

I can’t in good faith say any team consistently used this to their advantage because, again, the Steelers haven’t seen that many of these runs to the edge. This run by Washington has a simple explanation but a difficult method. Football Team set up a blocking scheme to put a hat on a hat. The closest thing to complexity is #75 moving to the second level to get to his man. Everyone does a solid job although that same #75 is a bit late, which limits the gain. This play exemplifies the phrase “easier said than done.”

Play 2

Some of the chatter that came my way via the Rumblings team and elsewhere was the suggestion that the Steelers may also be vulnerable in the passing game when running backs get involved. Based on the proposed weakness of runs to the edge, it makes a lot of sense that “long handoffs” would yield similar results. And sometimes they do. Here Washington has spread out their offense and emptied the backfield. The Steelers’ defense spreads out as well. The routes on the right side work to open up J.D. McKissic for an easy gain.

Play 3

The Steelers don’t have a lot of time to react to #83 crossing the formation, which puts them a bit behind the curve right away. Also note that this shift puts four eligible receivers on the right side of the formation. There’s simply not enough defenders on that side to pick everyone up. When McKissic slips out for the quick pass he has plenty of room.

Play 4

Flip to the left side and we a see a couple similarities. Washington hasn’t loaded up on the side they’re throwing to but a quick strike to the running back still provides big gains. They’ve caught Pittsburgh not accounting for the backfield again.

Play 5

Here the Eagles find similar success (although not to a running back). A time of 2.5 seconds from snap to throw is pretty quick and is often the goal to beat a pass rush. On this throw, the 2.5 seconds isn’t from snap to throw. It’s from snap to completion. This is a blazing fast play and the Steelers can’t respond.

Play 6

One more weakness to add to the pile. While not fully supported by the data, the middle of the field could be a problem. Taking a quick peek at the Steelers’ injury reports reveals they have a linebacker issue. The depleted group already showed signs of boom-or-bust potential, which might be explained scheme-wise via this play. They all vacate the middle of the field. The initial catch is a problem for the defensive backs to explain, but no one’s there to clean up and limit the gain.

T.J. Watt is still a problem. With Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, and Robert Spillane all out for the game however, not even Watt can cover the whole field.


Summary

When I use the term weakness, make no mistake these are relative weaknesses. I’ve heard the quality-of-opponent arguments and there’s validity to those points. Even in consideration of that, teams don’t find themselves leading the league in points allowed without a lot of talent.

For the short passing game for instance, the Steelers allow the second-least amount of yards in the league on both sides of the field. This is likely in large part thanks to similar performance in completion percentage. By forcing a higher number of zeroes into the mix, it drops the average gain considerably. Even Washington, the only team to beat Pittsburgh this year, was hit or miss on these plays. Plenty were shut down quickly.

Buffalo will have opportunities but they may not come as frequently as we’ve grown accustomed to in 2020. There are common elements in the successful plays above that we might see the Bills use to get the ball moving. However, as hinted at above in Play 1, there won’t be a lot of margin for error. The Steelers are a good team and Buffalo will need to rise to the occasion to exit the game with a victory.