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Defending Tight Ends Should Be Focal Point Of Improvement For Steelers Defense

After a physical and intense victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers head into the bye week with a record of 3-2-1. With victories in three of their last four games, the Steelers head into the bye with a lot of positives but also with some significant factors to improve on. The Steelers have struggled to defend tight ends this season and with two weeks to prepare for the second half of their schedule, now is the time to correct those flaws.

The Steelers have allowed 46 receptions to tight ends this season, the most in the NFL. On those 46 receptions, tight ends have logged 478 yards, third most in the NFL. Opposing offenses and coordinators are aware of this weakness and have made tight ends a focal point in their game plan against the Steelers’ defense, as quarterbacks have targeted tight ends an NFL leading 63 times.

Tight ends who have done significant damage against the Steelers this season include:

Travis Kelce: 7 receptions for 109 yards and 2 touchdowns

O.J. Howard: 6 receptions for 72 yards

Maxx Williams: 5 receptions for 51 yards

Austin Hooper: 9 receptions for 77 yards

C.J. Uzomah: 6 receptions for 54 yards

Uzomah replaced the injured Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft for the Bengals and still enjoyed an adequate amount of success against the Steelers defense. Four of Uzomah’s six receptions against the Steelers moved the chains as he was able to use his physicality to dominate cornerback Cameron Sutton.

Uzomah is 6’6 and 265 lbs compared to Sutton’s 5’11 and 190 lb frame. The tight end used his size to his advantage Sunday, showing physicality at the top of his routes and by simply out boxing Sutton for the ball like the play below.

With safety Morgan Burnett injured, Sutton has found himself enrolled as the team’s ‘dimebacker’. Sutton comes with a lot of physical short comings when it comes to defending opposing tight ends and though Uzomah got the best of him Sunday, the Steelers’ cornerback did all that he could.

Offenses have also attacked the Steelers’ defense by sending tight ends down the seam. The Kansas City Chiefs parted the seams like the red sea in their week two victory over the Steelers, sending Kelce down the middle as neither Jon Bostic nor Vince Williams were able to keep up with his athleticism.

This is a strategy that other teams have mirrored in following weeks as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers utilized Howard in a similar way.

Outside linebacker T.J. Watt is tasked with dropping back and covering Howard on the play above, but the athletic tight end is just one step too fast for the younger Watt brother to keep up with and the result is a big catch.

So just how do the Steelers stop the bleeding when it comes to defending tight ends? For starters, you would like to someone more physically gifted at the ‘dimebacker’ position, as it is simply not a position for Sutton to find any confidence in. Once again, the return of Burnett should help clean up this area.

When it comes to zone droppings, the team found hints of success in utilizing L.J. Fort in passing situations against the Falcons, and the Steelers may find it in their best interests to explore ways to get Fort on the field. His athleticism, speed and coverage ability are hard to miss. Like Burnett, Fort missed this weekend’s action with an injury but with two weeks to spare, the Steelers could be getting their tight end solutions back by the time they return to action on October 28th.

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