One of the biggest sources of frustration for Steelers’ fans, myself included, over the last several years have been the repeated moments where linebackers have been matched up on wide receivers. That happened throughout 2020 but was most noticeable in the final two games of the season. The regular season finale against the Cleveland Browns and then the Wild Card loss against them the following week. And in key moments, guys like Robert Spillane had to cover receivers like Jarvis Landry. The results weren’t pretty for Pittsburgh.
But Spillane defended those playcalls in a Zoom call with reporters on Monday, saying he needs to do a better job with his technique.
“That’s a matchup that we’ve won throughout the season many times,” he said in a Zoom call provided by the team. “People want to look at one play and say that that’s the reason that we lost or that is a mismatch. And it’s not. I had poor technique where I could have put my hands on a receiver and I didn’t. And there’s nothing more to it. It’s not a crazy athleticism matchup. He doesn’t have a mismatch on size. It’s a minus for me on that play. And I know I need to be better, but it’s nothing that I can’t get done on a week-to-week basis.
So I’m looking forward to coming back and showing that underneath coverage is one of my best abilities. And like Tomlin said, you gotta win when you’re put in those positions, so I’m looking forward to come back and prove to people that I can cover receivers all over the field.”
A noble thing for a guy like Spillane to say. The “do your job” approach that’s allowed him to climb the NFL ladder from an undrafted free agent who cracked the starting lineup following Devin Bush’s season-ending torn ACL. Spillane did flash in coverage, pick-sixing Lamar Jackson in the first meeting against Baltimore, and overall did better in coverage than anticipated.
But the idea of “we can cover WRs with LBs” is an absurd statement. That is a mismatch. There’s a reason why so many teams shift their top receivers to the slots out of empty, aligning them as #2 or #3 to get them on linebackers. And there’s a reason why the Steelers haven’t defended it well. Not because the players aren’t good enough but because these are mismatches. T.J. Watt on Sammy Watkins is a mismatch. Jon Bostic on Keenan Allen is a mismatch. Robert Spillane on Jarvis Landry is a mismatch.
And it killed the Steelers. Like in the playoff loss. On 2nd and 9 in the fourth-quarter, Baker Mayfield hits Landry for a 17 yard gain working over Spillane.
As Spillane said, he can work on better technique. Being more patient, using his hands more effectively, but he’s covering the whole field on this option route. He may occasionally win a battle. But he’ll lose the war.
Mayfield was a perfect 4/4 for 56 yards throwing out of empty in the Wild Card game. Across that game and the Week 17 finale, he was 11/13 for 128 yards. Seven of those completions moved the chains.
We’ve written about the subject many times over. These are tough spots for defenses to be in. Offenses who come out in heavy personnel with multiple tight ends, keeping the Steelers in their base 3-4. Then teams go empty, spread the field, and align receivers inside. It’s not a position of strength for a defense.
But putting guys like Spillane on guys like Landry are major disadvantages for Pittsburgh. The coaching staff telling themselves – or their players – to just go out there and “win” your matchup is futile. And the results won’t get better until the Steelers fundamentally rethink their approach.