This year’s Pittsburgh Steelers? They’ve got lots of problems. Their offense has zero identity. And their defense has no personality.
Make no mistake. Of the two sides, the offense is the bigger issue. But this defense hasn’t been good enough this year. They’re not the same pressure-happy, aggressive, ball-hawking unit of the last two seasons. This group is no longer playing that same brand of football. It’s not just because they aren’t living up to their standards. This is a defense playing more zone coverage, blitzing a lot less, and generating a fraction of the pressure they’re used to.
In coverage, their zone rates have seen a clear uptick from past years. Courtesy of PFF, here are their zone/man rates from 2019 to 2021.
(These numbers don’t add up to 100% due to combination coverages that don’t break so cleanly into man or zone buckets).
From last year to this year, that’s an 11% increase in zone coverage and 13% decrease in man coverage. More specifically, their Cover 1 rate has fallen greatly from last year to this year.
Cover 1 Rate
A 12% drop. Overall, the Steelers are playing more zone coverage. Why? They don’t have the personnel to man up. Losing guys like Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton, relying on new and lesser talented faces like James Pierre, Tre Norwood, and Arthur Maulet have forced them to play more zone. Zone coverage keeps eyes on the football but watching the tape, the coverage has been softer and more about not getting beat deep, as they did in Weeks 2 and 3, and not so much about being able to play the ball and contest like this group could in 2019 and 2020.
That younger, less trusted secondary is also impacting the team’s blitz rates. It’s simple math. More guys you send, the less guys you have to cover. If you’re going to send people, you have to trust your secondary to win 1v1 battles. That trust’s yet to be earned so Pittsburgh is hanging back and dropping more people into coverage.
Using our charting, their rushes sending 5+ defenders have seen a significant drop. Here are those year-by-year numbers.
5+ Man Blitzes
The lowest figure since we’ve been tracking it beginning in 2015. It’s never been lower than 19.5% prior to this year (in 2017, when the secondary was starting guys like Artie Burns, Coty Sensabaugh, and Rob Golden), and had only been under 30% twice over the past six years. Compared to 2019 and 2020, the 5+ rush numbers have dropped by more than half. A 54.8% decrease compared to 2019, a 60.1% fall stacked up to last season.
It’s no surprise the blitz rates have seen a similar fall. These numbers can and are a bit different than the five man rushes. The team can bring only four and still blitz. But those numbers have sunk, too.
The lowest mark that we’ve tracked, even lower than Dick LeBeau’s final year in Pittsburgh. And a drop of more than 11% compared to last season and so far, the first/only time the blitz rate has been below 30% under Keith Butler.
All of that has led to the team’s pressure rate decreasing. Some of that can be related to the team’s injuries and it has only been four games (one of which was without T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith) but the pressure has fallen off, especially since the opener.
Rush and coverage, pressure and coverage, go together. Less pressure means fewer hurried throws which means less opportunities for the defense to make big plays. They’ve still left chances on the table, like Minkah Fitzpatrick’s dropped INT Sunday, but they’re not getting the same number of chances anymore.
It all works hand-in-hand. A younger, less accomplished secondary means more zone defense, less blitzing, and a lower pressure rate. When all of those elements have shifted, the personality of the defense changes too.
That’s what the Steelers defense had looked like. Aggressive, blitz-happy, a keen eye on taking the football away. That’s not 2021’s version. They’re dropping seven into coverage more often, keeping the ball in front, and tackling the catch. It’s not quite the old-school Cover 3 but it’s a much different feel compared to this time a year ago. Both in style and in substance.