Looking Ahead: Scouting the Pittsburgh Steelers

 

Most of the focus around Bucs Nation will most likely be on the long term suspension of safety Tanard Jackson. This is a major blow to the secondary, which was a major problem in 2009. Although the team has gotten off to a good start, there are still signs that the secondary will sorely miss T-Jack. They have given up a big play in each contest so far (touchdowns to Mohammed Massaquoi and Steve Smith), something that has to be alarming considering the schedule is about to get much more difficult. That said, Bucs have "got what they got" so to speak, and must find a way to come together as a team.  The most important thing going forward is Sunday afternoon at 1 PM.  This week our Bucs take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are also 2-0. The similarities of course do not end here. Both squads have used dominating defensive schemes that propelled them to a championship (two in the case of Pittsburgh) over the last decade. Head coaches Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris were both defensive coaches on Tampa’s lone Super Bowl team, and both have had to deal with a fair amount of issues over the past 12 months. This Sunday, both will try to move their respective squads to 3-0. Let’s take a quick look at what the Steelers do on both sides of the ball, and what the Buccaneers will have to do to get the victory.

 

Perhaps the biggest mismatch heading into this game is the Buccaneers offensive line taking on the Steelers front 7. They do a tremendous job of swarming to the football, while eliminating any cutback lanes. A week ago, Pittsburgh faced arguably the best running back in the league in Chris Johnson. His production? 16 carries, 34 yards (11 on one play to start the second half). Here are a few plays that display the dominance the Steelers enjoyed in the trenches for the majority of the day:

 

Pittsburgh 7-3 Tennessee

Titans Ball 7:03 left in the first quarter 2nd and 2 from the Pittsburgh 19:

After an 8 yard gain on first down (in which Johnson broke about 5 tackles), the Titans attempt to pound the ball to move the chains. They line up in a bunch formation with two wideouts, a tight end on the right side, and a fullback to the left. At the snap, the fullback moves over to the right. By the time Johnson gets the ball in his hands, there are 9 Steelers in the box. Instead of following the formation, Johnson cuts back in an attempt to get the two yards. They show tremendous gap discipline on this play, and Lawrence Timmons drills CJ for no gain.

 

Pittsburgh 10-3 Tennessee

Titans ball, 14:02 left in the second quarter 1st and 10 from the Tennessee 20: 

The Titans line up in a full house backfield on this play, with a receiver to each side. The Steelers show blitz with their two outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage. The play is a designed run to the left, with both fullbacks pulling to that side. However Johnson is met at the line by Troy Polamalu and is unable to cut back. Another gain of 0 on the play.

 

Pittsburgh 16-3 Tennessee

Titans ball 10:47 left in 4th quarter 1st and 10 from the Tennessee 20: 

The Titans line up in a single-back formation with one wideout split left. On this play, the Titans run a stretch play to the right side this play is a complete mess from Tennessee’s point of view. Their entire offensive line gets pushed back by the Steelers, and Johnson is unable to make any sort of cut and is tackled by Jerome Harrison. The linebackers for the Steelers do a tremendous job of zeroing in on their target and not letting go of the ball carrier. 

 

 

The other aspect of the Steelers defense is their vaunted blitzing schemes in passing situations. Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau has an uncanny ability to disguise coverages, causing opposing offenses to make mistakes. Against the Titans, Vince Young and Kerry Collins struggled mightily to sustain drives, and whenever they did they often made mistakes that undermined them. Here are a few passing plays from this game that show what challenges the Bucs will face from Pittsburgh’s pass defense.

 

Pittsburgh 7-3 Tennessee

Titans ball 5:54 left in 1st quarter 1st and 10 from the Pittsburgh 16

Tennessee lines up in a bunch formation, with 3 receivers lined up on the right side and. Johnson is in the backfield alone and there is a receiver split left. Vince Young fakes to Johnson, and the Steelers only rush 4. Young has plenty of time to throw the football, but makes a poor decision and fires towards tight end Bo Schaife. Polamalu undercuts the route and makes the interception in the endzone. Young looks his at his receiver the entire route, which is a critical mistake when taking on Mr. Head and Shoulders. This is a throw Josh Freeman cannot make on Sunday. The Titans were in scoring position, and the QB took points off the board. Freeman has shown a great deal of improvement so far but Sunday will be the ultimate test of his decision making abilities.

 

Pittsburgh 10-3 Tennessee

Titans ball 8:28 left in 2nd quarter 3rd and 6 from the Pittsburgh 42: 

Another simple mistake from Young that could have been avoided. The Titans line up in a simple shotgun formation, with Chris Johnson to Young’s left. The Steelers only have one down lineman (which happens to be LaMarr Woodley), with about 4 or 5 other defenders showing blitz from a standing position. When the ball is snapped, Woodley drops into coverage while the Steelers send the 4 standing defenders. Young is looking to hit Justin Gage on the slant pattern because of the blitz, but fails to see Woodley dropping back and he is able to make the simple interception. Young didn’t have anyone to have anyone open on this play, but his ability to scramble could have led him to at least threaten to get a first down. Instead, field position is flipped and the Titans are on the back foot once again.

 

Pittsburgh 16-3 Tennessee

Titans ball 10:08 left in the 4th quarter 2nd and 9 from the Tennessee 21:

 

Kerry Collins is now in the game for the Titans. Tennessee comes to the line in a shotgun formation, with CJ split right. They have two receivers on the left side of the formation who are shown press coverage. There are 6 defenders in the box, with 4 down lineman set. Right before the snap of the ball, the corner covering the "slot" receiver slides into the box, and all 7 defenders are right at the line of scrimmage. At the snap, the Steelers rush 5 up the middle, leaving James Farrior unblocked. He was able to get to Kerry Collins and force him to take an intentional grounding penalty. The Titans had 5 offensive linemen to block the defenders, but assignments were not communicated properly and it led to an easy hurry. Yet another great job by LeBeau controlling the line of scrimmage and getting pressure on the quarterback.

All together, Pittsburgh forced 7 turnovers while ending Chris Johnson’s streak of 100 yard rushing games at 12. The Steelers have only allowed one 100 yard rusher in their last 36 games. The chance Cadillac Williams accomplishes this have to be pretty low. The unit looks completely different with Polamalu back in the lineup, and as long as he remains healthy the Steelers should have a top 5 defense this year. The Steelers are 15-2 in their last 17 regular-season games that Polamalu has started; an impressive stat to say the least. The Buccaneers look like they are in for a slugfest on Sunday. The over under in this contest is 33, the lowest total of the weekend. This game will clearly be a battle of which team makes the fewest errors. The Titans were able to force a few mistakes against the Steelers, but consistently shot themselves in the foot. If the Buccaneers can hang onto the football and take advantage of Pittsburgh’s sub-par offense, then they could spring an upset on Sunday afternoon.

As for a game plan? I feel running the ball is a lost cause, as BucWild has pointed out we rank dead last in rushing DVOA on the season. The debate on this website at the moment is about running game and to what degree should the Bucs abandon it if it is ineffective. Of course Freeman can’t win the game by himself, and making him throw the ball 40 times would probably backfire as well. The only chance Tampa has of scoring points is if the defense can give them a short field, and use playaction to get the ultra-aggressive linebackers of the Steelers off balance. Both teams will aim to control the clock with the running game, but if neither succeeds it could lead to a whole lot of three and outs. What does Bucs Nation think of our chances Sunday? 

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