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 an 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. Let’s get into it.
Following their 26-16 win on Monday Night Football against the Giants, the Steelers are riding high. Their defense picked up where they left off last year, holding the New York Football Giants to only 29 yards rushing and generating 2 game-changing turnovers. On the other side of the football, Ben Roethlisberger shined in his first game back under center after a full calendar year following his elbow injury. The Broncos on the other hand had a lackluster outing during the 2nd leg of the Monday Night doubleheader, not being able to pull out a win despite the Titans kicker missing 3 FG’s and 1 XP.
With there finally being some film out there on both teams this week’s Matchup To Watch is going to be a bit easier as we are no longer fully speculating about how teams are going to be looking scheme or personnel-wise after a preseason-less offseason. Our focus this week will be on Vic Fangio’s pass-defense and how he deploys his defensive backfield to eliminate big plays and force long drives.
Vic Fangio’s Pass Defense vs. Steelers Receivers
Vic Fangio came over from Chicago to become the Broncos head coach in 2019 after boasting the #1 defense in 2018. One carryover from Chicago is that Fangio expects tons of versatility from his defensive backs, especially his safeties, who he trusts a ton in coverage. One of the biggest staples to Fangio’s defenses is what is called match-zone coverage especially out of a Cover 4 base.
So what is match-zone? Essentially it’s a hybrid zone coverage that also uses man principles. The safeties and cornerbacks have very specific rules and read according to how the receivers react in their zones and know which receiver to “buy” depending on which way they go. Once these series of “if/then” statements are mentally completed by the defensive backs the zone defense quickly turns into a man to man scheme. This requires tons of communication skills in the secondary as well as lightning-quick mental processing.
Here’s a great example of the pattern matching of Fangio’s defense in Chicago. You can see at the bottom of the screen that once the 2 routes decipher where they’re going after 10-12 yards the defensive backs pass the routes off to one another and carry them the rest of the play. Seeing a play like this you can see why there must be so much communication and versatility in your team’s defensive backs if you plan to run this type of coverage. As you can see, you could easily have your nickel corner or safety running step for with the opponents #1 receiver when you pattern match like this, which highlights the need for versatile athlete throughout the secondary.
You can also see how this type of movement creates confusion for opposing quarterbacks and can cause easy turnovers for the defense. It’s well known around the league as being tough to operate against. ESPN asked Rams head coach Sean McVay, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur which coach’s defense is the toughest to read and attack and they all said Fangio.
He’s not known for dialing up the blitz often, but when he does it’s normally successful due to it being such a change of pace. His defenses often rely on only 4 or 5 man rushes to create pressure while dropping everyone else into coverage. This creates 3 main focuses for his defenses.
- Communication In the Secondary
- Eliminate The Big Play
- Rally To The Ball
This is just what they did to the Titans all Monday night. Uncharacteristically, Ryan Tannehill had 43 pass attempts and completed a pass to 10 different receivers. Tannehill became a “Checkdown Charlie” dumping it early and often to his first underneath reads. However, it proved successful to an extent as the Titans regularly moved into field goal range throughout the game. On Tennessee’s the game-winning field goal drive, Tannehill completed throws of 5 throws of less than 11 yards, methodically moving down the field.
For the Steelers to be successful they should follow a similar blueprint. In 2018, the last time Ben Roethlisberger had a full season at quarterback, the Steelers led the NFL in passing yards. Of those passing yards, more than 50% of them came after the catch. Pittsburgh will have to try return that form if they want to move the ball consistently on Sunday. They’ll have a tough task as the Broncos have a defense full of good tacklers. Here’s an example of their stud safety, Justin Simmons. The Broncos blitz and the Titans throw hot in response. When the throw starts, there’s not anyone within 10 yards of the intended receiver, but Justin Simmons anticipates the throw and is a heat-seeking missile before the ball is even out of Tannehill’s hand. He tackles the receiver before he can turn upfield.
The Steelers receivers are going to have to prove to be playmakers. The Titans had some of the best receivers in the NFL last year after the catch in AJ Brown and Jonnu Smith and they both were held under 9.0 yards per catch. In order to move down the field, the Steelers have to get their playmakers like JuJu and Diontae Johnson in space and make guys miss. Pittsburgh’s offense really started to kick into gear when they started hitting underneath passes in space as seen below.
The Steelers offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, did an okay job manufacturing touches to the receivers underneath in week 1, but he needs to get even more creative this week in order to try to confuse Broncos defenders as they pattern-match and sit back in a deep zone. The key to beating defenses like this is quite literally not beating yourself. They bank on offenses not taking what’s given to them and making mistakes. If Roethlisberger can be sharp underneath, get ahead of the sticks on early downs and occasionally push the ball down the field while not forcing anything into disguised coverages I think you’ll see a similar result to week 1 for the Steelers.