When Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins went over 100 yards on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was the seventh game where the Steelers surrendered over 100 yards to opposing receivers. That’s 70% of games this season where Pittsburgh has given up over 100 yards to an opposing receiver, which needless to say is not a good number. Talking to the media before practice today, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin addressed what Pittsburgh needs to do to prevent receivers from beating them over the top.
“There’s been a lot of times when we’ve been in position to make the plays and we aren’t making the plays and we’re not making the plays. So a lot of balls that a lot of times go down as 50-50, we’re losing the majority of those and we have to get better at winning them. That’s just gonna take work from us, between the staff and the players. When we get in position to win the 50-50 balls, we have to win them,” Austin said via Steelers.com.
Outside of Higgins, the other receivers who have gone for 100 yards against Pittsburgh are JaMarr Chase, Nelson Agholor, Amari Cooper, Gabe Davis, Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown. With the exception of Agholor, all those receivers are a top-two target on their respective teams. When it comes to 50-50 balls, those are the receivers a quarterback will usually target. Obviously, the majority of Davis’ yardage against the Bills came on his 98-yard touchdown where there was help over the top, but for the most part, Pittsburgh is getting burned in single coverage. Whether it’s 50-50 balls or just allowing too much separation, the Steelers, who traditionally have done a good job of taking away the opponent’s top weapon, haven’t done so this year.
Some of that speaks to a talent gap. Ahkello Witherspoon, when healthy, was tasked with being Pittsburgh’s top cover corner. While Witherspoon was solid for Pittsburgh at the end of the year last year, he’s struggled mightily this year. At some point, there’s just a talent gap between Pittsburgh’s corners and the opponent’s top targets. Cameron Sutton has had a good year, and Levi Wallace is solid, but I don’t think I necessarily want one of those guys defending a guy like Diggs or Brown one-on-one, while Witherspoon has shown he really doesn’t have the ability to keep up with top guys in single coverage.
Pittsburgh’s depth in the secondary is solid, but they need top-end talent. This offseason, the team needs to make it a focus to make a move in the draft or in free agency to bring someone in at cornerback who can make a legitimate difference and not let Pittsburgh get burned via 50-50 balls or by allowing too much separation. If they ignore the position, the defense, despite all its talent, will continue to struggle.