Throughout the Pittsburgh Steelers season I will be doing a weekly piece on an intriguing matchup to watch for each game. The focus will be on choosing important battle for the upcoming game and give you some background information that could be something to keep an eye on come game time. For example, it could focus on key players on each team that will be going head to head or how a defense will try to stop a specific player.
Last week we took a look at the Steelers pass defense versus the Kansas City Chiefs receivers and overall it was good night. The defense allowed approximately a 50 percent completion percentage; a little over 200 yards and 1 TD on 43 pass attempts.
Let’s stay on that side of the ball and get slightly more specific.
Steelers Covering the Tight End
From 2017 to 2018 the Steelers defense saw a jump in every category when covering the tight end per Football Guys :
You have to believe part of this had to do with Ryan Shazier no longer patrolling the middle of the defense. Coverage choices likely had an effect as well and somewhere along the line some offensive coordinator saw some holes and began to exploit them. And the NFL is copycatting league so once your weakness is known to one team, the other 30 aren’t far behind.
They held the Chiefs tight ends to 5 receptions and 69 yards with Travis Kelce making 1 reception for 5 yards in his limited time. This was a big improvement from the first preseason game against Tampa Bay where the combination of Tanner Hudson and Antony Auclair had 8 receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown.
From preseason game number two there were encouraging signs that may indicate things may not be so easy for tight ends this year. Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler was mixing up coverages and who was covering to try and keep the quarterbacks confused.
Here are a couple sequences that caught my eye.
Here are back to back plays. In the first clip shows Mike Hilton (28) lined up over the Kelce (87). At the snap Hilton is going to retreat toward the slot receiver but gets a slight push on Kelce before passing him off to Mark Barron (26) in the middle of the field.
The second clip shows Sean Davis (21) walking up on Kelce and getting a good jam that slows Kelce at the LOS.
Here is a three play sequence, the first clip starts with Barron lined up over Deon Yelder (82) at the top of the screen. He’s in Man coverage and when Yelder breaks to the inside he undercuts the route with safety help over the top.
The second play is also Man coverage with two tight ends in the game. Kameron Kelly (38) is on Blake Bell (81) and has him on the curl over the middle. Barron (26) has Yelder again and sits down in front of the route at the 5 yard mark forcing Yelder to go through him or make a cut to get around him.
The third play it looks like Davis in Man coverage at the top of the screen. At the start of the play he has the safety help so he plays under the route. The QB looks that way initially but with two defenders over there he works to the other side.
Titan Tight Ends are Targeted
The Titans, so far in the preseason have been using their tight ends often in the passing game. In game 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles the group of Anthony Firkser, MyCole Pruitt, Cole Wick and Ryan Hewitt combined for 8 receptions for 73 yards and 2 touchdowns on 9 targets. In game to versus the New England Patriots the group of Firkser, Wick and Delanie Walker combined for 7 receptions for 100 yards and 1 touchdown on eight targets.
They had similar results in the 2018 preseason game against Pittsburgh with Firkser and Tim Semisch going for a line of 7-90 and 1 TD.
Here is the touchdown against the Patriots. Walker (82) is in the two point stance all the way to the right of the formation. Obi Melifonwu (22) is in off Man coverage giving Walker a free release. He presses out breaks in on the skinny post for and easy touchdown. Hard to cover guy in the red zone from that far off.
Another free release off the line in Man coverage and Firkser (86) in the tight slot to the right is able to beat the DB to the outside for a 22 yard gain.
What to Watch For
Defending the Ball Downfield – You can see from the two clips the Titans don’t just dink and dunk to the tight ends. They will push the ball down field to the middle of the field, up the seam and to the sideline. It should be a good test for the linebackers and the safeties to see how they handle one on one situations to the deeper passing areas.
Multiple Tight End Personnel – There was one play above on a 2nd and ten against Kansas City that the Steelers handled well but that is a passing down and distance. Tennessee is a good running team, 7th in rushing yards in 2018, and lined up with 2 or more tight ends 39% of the time in 2018 and threw the ball 26% of the time out of those sets. This could to lead to play action passes to get the tight ends in winnable matchups. Look for what defensive grouping is on the field when they have multiple tight ends sets. Will the Steelers have the right guys out there to cover?
Jam, Jam, Jam – I know it sounds crazy but it’s more difficult to a receiver to get into his route and keep the timing with the QB when he’s jammed at the line of scrimmage. Passing is all about timing. The number of steps in the quarterbacks drop corresponds with the depth of the routes. The receivers have to get to specific depths for the routes to be successful. The more they can disrupt the routes the more effective the defense can be. You don’t have to show it all the time now in the preseason but I do like that we saw it occasionally last week.
Okay you can’t jam all the time – But you can still be in Press coverage. With or without a jam, being up the receivers face makes him think about whether a jam is coming. If a player is thinking he’s not reacting as quickly as he could.