The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary has been nothing short of great recently but they have still been far from perfect. One area that has served as the unit’s kryptonite is the middle of the field as opposing quarterbacks have targeted this area with much success.
Philip Rivers operated without breaking a sweat when targeting the middle of the field in their last meeting, as he tossed a couple touchdown passes and had a few big gains in that area of the field. The Steelers’ inability to defend over the middle is not a new problem that sprouted up last week. The middle of the field has been a black eye on what has otherwise been a pretty good defensive showing over the last month.
Using statistics compiled from Next Gen Stats, opposing quarterbacks have been putting together Pro Bowl caliber numbers against the Steelers when targeting the middle of the field. On passes beyond the line of scrimmage, quarterbacks have completed 73-percent of their passes for 854 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions when targeting the Steelers’ defense over the middle. That equals out to a 113.6 passer rating.
QBs when targeting the middle of the field (Past LOS)
Philip Rivers: 13/18, 193 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
Lamar Jackson: 10/14, 105 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Andy Dalton: 8/10, 100 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT
Jimmy Garoppolo: 8/12, 118 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Russell Wilson: 10/10, 123 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT
Tom Brady: 9/15, 215 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INT
Total: 58/79, 854 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs, 113.6 passer rating
The numbers get a lot worse when only accounting for passes over the middle that have travelled 10+ yards past the line of scrimmage. The Steelers defense are allowing quarterbacks to still complete 73-percent of their passes (24/33) on passes that are at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage over the middle but their passer rating grows from 113.6 to 141.7.
QBs when targeting the middle of the field (10+ yards past LOS)
Philip Rivers: 9/12, 144 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT
Lamar Jackson: 0/1, 0 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT
Andy Dalton: 4/5, 64 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT
Jimmy Garoppolo: 5/7, 85 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
Russell Wilson: 1/1, 13 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INT
Tom Brady: 5/7 165 yards 2 TDs 0 INTs
Total: 24/33, 471 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT, 141.7 passer rating
The Steelers have struggled with defending the middle throughout this season but with many more pressing matters, such as the quarterback situation or the offensive inefficiency taking the all the attention, the middle of the field had been moved to the backburner. That was until Rivers had his way with the middle of the field a little over a week ago.
Rivers completed 13 of 18 passes for 193 yards with two touchdowns and one interception when throwing to the middle. There are a few culprits for what went wrong over the middle last Sunday and they are documented below.
Steelers are in cover two and there is a lot of breathing room between the linebackers and safeties. This is one area that the Chargers targeted time and time again and Keenan Allen took advantage of it on the play above.
Allen works his way to the middle of the field and Rivers has a gigantic window to fit this ball into. Minkah Fitzpatrick slips on the play but it is unlikely he would have been able to make a play regardless.
Looks like the Steelers drop into cover three here and once again Rivers is able to throw a great pass in between the second level and last line of defense. The threat of a check down pass keeps the second line defenders frozen and Rivers has a clear window to throw into once Vince Williams bites on the running back spilling out.
Chargers attack the Steelers’ defense by stretching it out, as one receiver drags short, another attacks the intermediate area near the sideline and Jason Moore acts as the vertical threat. Fitzpatrick works his way down and bites on the short throw, leaving Moore wide open down field. Rivers then essentially throws a punt that Moore catches for 32-yards, the longest pass play of the night for either team.
This time the Steelers have two deep safeties but with man coverage underneath. Kameron Kelly is on Hunter Henry and the Chargers tight end completely turns him around and catches an easy touchdown. Kelly is playing Henry to the outside but the tight end flips the defensive back’s hips rather easily and scores his second touchdown of the night.
There is no sole culprit for the Steelers’ struggles with defending the middle of the field which leaves a variety of solutions. First and foremost, the defense is going to have to tighten up and be more disciplined over the middle. This means linebacker getting more depth to make throws to the middle a lot tougher and more communication. The Steelers have been burned more than once over the last two games on plays where safeties have either rotated towards or away from the line of scrimmage. Last but not least, personnel may also be an area worth watching as Kelly’s play was less than stellar against the Chargers.