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.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
“Scouting should determine what an opposing team’s strength is; then it is up to the staff to determine how to combat this in the most effective ways known. Every effort should be made to stop what he opponent does best.”
“It is logical to think that a coach’s philosophy should be: ‘Be strong against a team’s strength. Be alert for anything that they have shown. If they do beat you, make them do it with something that they haven’t shown before’”
These are quotes from Football Scouting Methods. A book copyrighted in 1962 and written by long time U.S. Naval Academy backfield coach and scout, Steve Belichick,the father of Bill Belichick.
The apple definitely did not fall far from the tree.
Bill Belichick vs the Steelers Biggest Threat
Belichick has long been a proponent of taking away the best player on the opposing team and make you beat them with the rest.
A look back at the games in this decade gives an idea of where his focus has been and will likely be this week.
QB1 – It’s difficult to completed shut down a quarterback especially with a quality offensive line. You would need to be able to create a near perfect plan to apply pressure and control the coverages. The Steelers quarterback have put up solid number over the decade including Landry Jones who was 29-47 for 281 yards with 1 TD and an interception in his 2016 start.
RB1 – Shutting down the running game is possible. Stacking the box can be effective to slow down or hinder the rushing game. Over the last seven games the numbers seem to indicate that isn’t where Belichick has focused either. Whether it was Rashard Mendenhall, LeVeon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or Jaylen Samuels in that lead back role they have put up very good numbers averaging around 22 touches and 133 yards per game. Last year Samuels had 21 touches for 172 yards. It was his first one hundred yard rushing game in his life.
WR1 – Except for 2011, Antonio Brown was the lead receiver on the squad and that is who Belichick was focused on. Since he became a full time contributor after his rookie year, Brown averaged 10.4 targets, 6.8 receptions and 91.2 yards per game. Versus New England, in six games as WR1 those averages drop to 8.3 targets, 5.7 receptions and 76.7 yards per game with. Not a terribly huge difference overall but as Brown got better so did Belichick’s scheme. Over the last 2 years in 3 games, Brown averaged 6.3 targets, 4.3 reception and 50 yards.
What the Patriots Do
I took a look at the last three games to review the coverages they used to show you some different examples of what we might see.
Physicality – Here he is in the slot and the DB is going to give him a good jam off the line of scrimmage. They also have the Edge fake a pass rush and drop into coverage which ends up right in the line of his route.
Disguising Who’s Covering – Split wide left the DB is going to walk up to show Press coverage. Just before the snap the corners are going to bail into a Cover 3 look and the safety is going jump up to cut off the inside route.
Trail Man with Safety Help – In the left slot, the DB takes and inside position to try to force him outside then takes a trail position to undercut the route knowing he has safety help over the top.
Man with More Help – Split wide right the Patriots have three defenders work to his side. The DB is in Man coverage, a linebacker cuts underneath into the flat and the safety has help over the top.
Recover from the Rub – They send him in motion and the DB follows signaling Man coverage. The TE releases up field and Brown cuts underneath him to create a rub and hinder the DB. The safety recognizes and comes down to help.
Bracket – The corner in Press and is going to cut off he outside route while trying to jam the receiver. Inside they have a safety focused solely on Brown to create the bracket.
What can Pittsburgh Do?
With Brown gone JuJu Smith-Schuster is now WR1. As the WR2 last year he had a big game with 6 targets and 6 receptions for 114 yards. He will have his hands full not only on Sunday but this year as whole. He’ll likely be facing the DB1 from other teams as well as double coverages. What can the Steelers do to counter the coverages?
For Smith-Schuster, you’ll probably see a variety of movements and alignments to get him open.
Motion into Bunch – Motion from the offense is a good way to try and get an indication of how the defense will be covering. Motioning away from a bunch to isolate him would likely draw a double team. So motion him into a bunch formation to try to confuse coverages.
Rub routes – A big part of the Patriots offense and its good way to generate space for a receiver. In the clips above the Patriots did a nice job to switch defenders on inside crossing routes. The Steelers need to adjust the routes possibly to the outside and to the intermediate and deeper passing areas to be more effective.
Here is a rub from James Washington in the slot. Brown presses to the outside getting the DB to turn his hips and get the safety to start to drift outside. He cuts it up back in and beats them for the TD.
Take advantage of Zone – The Patriots do an excellent job of mixing up coverages and Brown had a few catches versus Zone. If JuJu, and the other WR’s, are on the same page with Ben Roethlisberger they can find the openings and use the short passing game effectively.
Line Him Up in the Backfield – You come out in 11 personnel and put James Connor/Samuels out wide or in the slot and line up Smith-Schuster in the backfield. This has a chance to create mismatches for different players.
Here is a play from last year. On 3rd and 2, Brown lines up in the backfield and goes in motion to try to set up the flat route. A host of New England defenders head toward Brown but none of the other receivers could get open. Though unsuccessful, I like the design here. Let Smith-Schuster draw the defense and split Washington wide left and let him win on a post pattern.
And JuJu isn’t alone. There rest of the team needs to step up as well.
Run the Ball – An obvious first choice and the Steelers have had success running the ball as indicated. If you’re able to move the ball on the ground effectively they won’t be able to keep as many DB’s on the field as they did last year and could allow play action to be more effective.
WR2 and WE3 – This game in particular is a chance for Donte Moncrief and Washington to step up. With the attention in coverages likely going away from them, they have to win the one on one battle consistently.
Ditto for McDonald – Vance McDonald had a touchdown on 2 receptions for 13 yards in the win last year. He needs to do his best Heath Miller imitation in this game. In three games this decade, Miller averaged 6.3 receptions and 70.7 yards per game. Similar number for McDonald would open be a nice boost to the offense.
If Belichick can limit the impact Smith-Schuster has on the game, all three of these things could not only have the potential to help Smith-Schuster deal with being the number one threat but also would lead to the best opportunity to win.