Keep it simple stupid. That’s the motto Alex Highsmith believes the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense will follow, though saying that and doing that are two different things. Speaking to reporters following Wednesday’s practice, Highsmith offered an overview of Pittsburgh’s defense.
“I think it’s just keeping it simple,” he said via the team’s YouTube channel. “Just controlling what we can control and just being our best selves whether that’s by the way we communicate, the plays that we run. Just not getting too complex.”
It all sounds good on the back of a bumper sticker but five games in and the Steelers have struggled to achieve those goals. They were dominant in the season opener, seven sacks and five turnovers. But losing T.J. Watt has transformed this defense from a fierce, aggressive, and opportunistic group to one that struggles to do anything well. Other injuries haven’t helped, especially in the secondary, and Pittsburgh’s coaching staff has tried to overcome by adding schematic wrinkles.
So far, the defense has used nearly 20 different personnel groupings or alignments. Against the Buffalo Bills Sunday, they were more blitz-happy, doing so on a whopping 62.5% of Josh Allen’s non-RPO dropbacks. But they failed to get to the quarterback, hitting him only once – Gabe Davis’ 98-yard TD – and failing to sack him. Over the last four games, Pittsburgh’s defense has recorded just three sacks.
Pittsburgh tried other wrinkles like a blitz package with rookie DL DeMarvin Leal lined as an off-ball linebacker. But Buffalo countered well, running the ball and ripping off a 23-yard gain down the left sideline. The coaching staff has thrown lots at the wall. Little of it has stuck. For Highsmith, getting back to basics is key.
“We just gotta do what we know we can do and that’s rush and cover. So we just gotta continue to do that.”
That may be the Steelers hope, rushing and covering, but it’s not their reality. Now they’ll try to fix it against Tom Brady, a Hall of Famer who has torched Pittsburgh even back when they had good defenses. It’s a monumental task and getting back on track means Highsmith will have to play a key and impactful role this weekend.