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.
How Far They’ve Come
This season has been one of the more fun seasons to watch in recent memory. Despite the loss of key players and starting the season 0-3 this team, from the top down, has never quit. Each week they seem to grow a little bit more. The defense has been a constant but in recent weeks we’ve seen the running game start to blossom. Following suit, the offense started to become more effective. Heck, we’ve even seen some improvement in special teams with the influx of youth into the return game. There is still one area that hasn’t been quite up to par of what we had hoped but this could be the week.
Vance McDonald vs the Cardinals Back Seven
The tight end position in the passing game has been a missing ingredient of this offense so far in 2019. The game plan for them seems to be more of check down or short area option and it shows. Here are McDonalds number over the last two years.
McDonald’s yards per reception average is the lowest of his career by more than 3 yards (10.9 in 2015). His yard per target average is down from 8.5 to 5.3. He has scored one TD since week 3 and hasn’t had more than 40 yards in a game all season. He has probably been asked to block more than usual working with younger QB’s so that would account for some of the drop off.
There is not easy fix for the Steelers TE woes but there has to be something that can help. I give you the Arizona Cardinals defense.
Per Pro Football Reference, the Cardinals have had issues covering tight ends all season. They have the 4TH highest amount of targets (101). They’re tied for 2ND for most receptions allowed (77). They have given up the most yards (953) and it’s not really close (next highest is 826). They have given up 13 touchdowns to tight ends, most in the league by 5.
They have allowed at least 6 receptions by the main TE 7 times. That have allowed four 100 yard games. While some of their games have been against guys like Mark Andrews, Greg Olson, Austin Hooper and George Kittle they have also allowed:
- 131 yards to J. Hockenson in his first NFL game. His next highest total is 56 yards.
- 107 yards to Tyler Higbee. His next highest total this season is 47.
- TD’s for Hayden Hurst, Will Dissly, Rhett Ellison, O.J. Howard and Ross Dwelley (2)
Bruce Arians doesn’t use his TE’s a great deal in Tampa Bay’s passing game and even they were able to target the tight end. Howard had 7 targets in the game against Arizona. That is 20% of his total targets on the season.
Who’s To Blame?
Everybody. They use multiple players to cover tight ends and I use the word cover lightly. Just looking at the touchdown passes to tight ends revealed that they often didn’t even cover them.
Here is the Andrews (89) touchdown. The motion by Marquis Brown (15) is going to draw the attention of Haason Reddick (43) and D.J. Swearinger (36). Andrews is going to run and out and up from the slot on the right and there isn’t a defender within 10 yard of him.
Howard (80) is the lone receiver to the right side. He hasn’t been used a lot in the passing game but he should still be covered. The DB Byron Murphy (33) is ten yards off the ball and Howard just drifts to the end zone.
Dwelley (82) is inline on the left and is going to jam Chandler Jones (55) before release on a shallow cross. It looks like Reddick should have had him in Man coverage.
Dissly (88) is going to wheel to the near corner on this play. The defense is a little closer in this clip but this is an easy pitch and catch. The play has Murphy and Jordan Hicks (58) confused in coverage.
McDonald should be calling Randy Fichtner all week a putting a bug in his ear. If they watched the film from the Rams game he should’ve been yelling out, “I can do that” every time Higbee caught one of his seven receptions. We’ve all be asking where the tight ends are in this offense and if they are going to make an impact it should be in this game.
The biggest culprits defensively have been Reddick and Swearinger with the latter now playing in Oakland. If Devlin Hodges sees Reddick on a Steelers TE he should be going there especially in the red zone. Reddick has been targeted 55 times this year giving up 41 completions (74.5%) and 7 touchdowns.
McDonald should come out of this game with no less than 5 receptions, 60 yards and at least one touchdown.
Maybe McDonald should’ve gone hunting with Hodges this week.