Do you remember the interview that our own Ron Lippock had with Robert Golden that we shared back in July? I want to go back to that just for a moment on the eve of the regular season, because I recall something that he said that I believe will be very important this season.
The secondary for the Pittsburgh Steelers has become much-maligned, and not without reason, but the numbers suggest a more nuanced understanding of what really happened with the team’s passing defense a year ago. I would like to take a look at some numbers first before going on.
I’ve cited these numbers from Pro Football Reference before, but it’s worth a refresher, I think. Last season, the Steelers gave up the fourth-most yardage receiving to running backs and the third-most touchdowns. They gave up the 11th-most receiving yards to tight ends with the 11th-most touchdowns. They gave up the sixth-fewest yards to wide receivers in the entire league, and the second-fewest touchdowns.
So what really is the problem with the passing defense if they are giving up far fewer yards and touchdowns to wide receivers, yet greater than average numbers to running backs and tight ends? The strong indication here is that the greater concerns in coverage are not outside the numbers, but over the middle and between the hash marks.
The Steelers seem to know this, based on Golden’s interview. He told Lippock that they have a plan for addressing the issue as well.
“The short pass killed us last year – the slot is where teams beat us. We’re taking away the inside and forcing teams to beat us on the outside”. He should add, of course, that running backs and tight ends going up against mostly linebackers in the slot were an even bigger contributor than the slot cornerback.
“We played a lot of taller, faster receivers and teams didn’t really stretch the field against us”, he noted, and if you look back on who he played, that is pretty much right.
“Now, we’re going to force them to try – make them go downfield. We have longer, lankier cornerbacks to cover those guys and can use those new guys to cover the slot guys better”, he said. “We can bring the safety up or let the corners play the slot. This year we got the slot guys we need in the draft – both guys are exceptional”.
Of course, some changes were made to the plan since then. Ross Cockrell was replaced with Joe Haden, Mike Hilton ascended, and Cameron Sutton has been banged up. But the ultimate plan is the same, and I still think it’s a wise one.
The Steelers actually want to put more pressure on their boundary cornerbacks this season because it means that they will be taking control of the middle of the field, where they were hurt worst of all a year ago. Having to throw outside the numbers also requires a longer delivery with greater force, meaning more time for pressure to get home.