clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Breakdown Corner: Steel in the Emerald City

New, comments

Pittsburgh travels to Seattle this week for what promises to be a gritty contest. Here's how the Seahawks can come away with a win.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Well this should be interesting.

Pittsburgh (6-4) presents a particular challenge for looking back at their season so far, as well as for predicting how they will perform in a difficult game against Seattle. But I'll try anyway, because it's Thanksgiving weekend and you, Oh Great Internet Reader, are looking for words on a screen.

As a bonus, we get to talk about the vaguely evil Pittsburgh Steelers, whose performance in Super Bowl XL was as bad as...well, it was as bad as the Seahawks', to be honest, but it still inspires a visceral sense of dislike for the goons from the "Three Rivers" area. (I have to channel my best Picard voice to say, "THERE ARE TWO RIVERS!" Why do we let them violate the basic rules of the rest of the river-naming world?)

Right, anyway. One difficulty in evaluating the Steelers is that they've been highly inconsistent this season. That's thanks in part to the frequent quarterback changes as Ben Roethlisberger has been plagued by injuries -- including one that kept him from starting last week. But we'll try to move beyond that and see how they do both with and without Roethlisberger at the helm.

When Big Ben is in -- 6 games so far this season -- he's averaging 316 yard per game on almost 9 yard per attempt and has thrown 10 touchdowns. He's also gifted away 7 interceptions. We all know that Roethlisberger brings size, and he's historically brought mobility, but this season he's run 3 times for -3 yards, so don't expect the man to leave the pocket unless he absolutely has to. (For reference, his previous season low was 26 attempts in 2012, so he's well on pace to bust that floor.)

When he's in, though, the team calls about 35 passing plays per game, and Roethlisberger likes to target deep. Of his 211 tosses, 54 have been deep (10+ yards downfield), and 26 of those have been completed. But 7 of those completions came against the 49ers (in 9 attempts) and 6 were against the Browns (also in 9 attempts); facing Cincinnati 3 weeks ago, he managed to go 3 for 13 on those long balls, while the Rams held him to nickel-and-dime throws for the 3 quarters he played.

Without their star quarterback, the Steelers have been less pass-dependent, throwing just 104 times in 4 games. That includes a win over Arizona whose box score could be the basis for a course in how conventional stats can be deceiving. (The Cards posted 421 yards through the air to Pittsburgh's 169 and totaled 159 more total yards than their opponents, but the combination of an inability to finish drives and 3 gimme turnovers led to a 25-13 defeat.) Landry Jones is heavily dependent on Martavis Bryant (who has caught all his TD passes), while Michael Vick depends on his legs to keep alive.

The Steelers roll with a set of high-name, good-value wide receivers, and they use their top tight end Heath Miller almost exclusively off the line. Miller has 50 catches on the year and is used frequently as Big Ben's outlet, but he lacks the speed and athleticism of the top tight ends Seattle has faced this season.

Antonio Brown, the mainstay of Pittsburgh's receiving corps for the last 4 seasons, has 79 catches for 1141 yards and dominates the team's targets this season. Martavis Bryant has been a threat both on deep passes and in yards after catch in his 5 games. He's pulled down 22 passes for 440 yards (20 ypc average) since returning from suspension. Markus Wheaton has been less stellar, particularly given his preseason hype. He's prone to dropping balls and hasn't shown the separation he had last year.

While Ben Roethlisberger seems to think Richard Sherman will cover AB, expect him to take on Bryant just as often.

Regardless, the towelies lean on the run. And they do so pretty successfully, seeing 1/3 of 1st down yardage, 2/3 of 2nd down yardage, or all of 3rd or 4th down yardage on almost exactly half (126 of 258) of their attempts this season. Pittsburgh liked to open with a run: 132 of those rushes were on 1st-and-10, while 120 of the Steelers' series (47.6%) have opened with a pass (77 of those with Roethlisberger under center). That's with good reason, too, as they've tallied 5 yards or more 51 times on series-opening runs.

As noted above, Heath Miller isn't absurdly athletic, and his blocking isn't particularly aggressive. Seattle's high-speed rush should be able to force D'Angelo Williams to make early decisions on runs. This would actually be more disruptive for Bell, who likes to have plays develop before identifying some tiny weakness; Williams is more straightforward, so the Seahawks will need to contain the way they've done for the last couple weeks. (Andre Ellington run excepted.)

Thanks to the boom-or-bust passing strategy, the Steelers are relatively poor in overall drive efficiency. Their average drive eats up almost 33 yards (7th in the NFL) and is worth about 2 points (11th in the NFL), but they fail to find a 1st down on about 34% of their series, in the bottom 10 in the league.

On defense, Pittsburgh has given up just 4 rushing touchdowns all year, but seen 18 go by through the air. (Strangely, Charcandrick West is the only RB1 to score against them in a game; the others were tallied by Joe Banyard [MIN], Michael Campanaro [BAL], and Jamize Olawale [OAK].) 

Indeed, their opponent yardage totals tell of a team that's difficult -- but not impossible -- to run on. The Steelers have held 6 opponents to 80 or fewer yards rushing, and they've caused an impressive 18 turnovers against the run. That having been said, the Ravens found a way to rack up 191 yards, doing most of the damage by running Justin Forsett right up the gut (9 rushes for 52 yards).

Of course, given the Seahawks' condition at center, that might not work as well. Runs to the outside have been largely unsuccessful against Pittsburgh, thanks to a solid-but-not-spectacular linebacker corps anchored by Lawrence Timmons that contains well. 

Those same linebackers like to rush off the edge, so expect a lot of broken plays early in the game if Russell Wilson holds onto the ball for any length of time. Quick rips to the tight ends across the middle or Doug Baldwin on the sideline should neutralize that threat.

This aggressive pass rush strategy is also why Pittsburgh has had trouble with pass-heavy teams and preventing even bad teams from putting up decent numbers through the air. The Cardinals ripped them apart through the air all day, in spite of falling short of a victory; Colin Kaepernick posted 335 yards and a pair of scores; and Johnny Manziel managed 372. Manziel! The Bengals are probably the most surprising opponent so far, barely skating by on 231 passing yards on 38 attempts -- but that game featured 2 untimely interceptions and a couple late drives that were heavy on Jeremy Hill and his poor-to-mediocre runs.

What Cincinnati did right was chip away. Andy Dalton threw short passes all game, racking up sustained drives while minimizing pressure and sacks. They didn't find the end zone much, but when you run only 4 drives in a half, you don't need many TDs. 

If Seattle pushes the ball up the middle on the ground and is ready with some quick throws, they should be able to put together good drives against this Steelers team. A "typical" (where by that I mean what we all think should be typical, not what's been typically typical) defensive effort should contain the rush enough as well as put pressure on Roethlisberger. Where the Seahawks are in danger is the deep passing game early -- expect Cary Williams to once again be picked on -- and the late running game. The Steelers will run all game, so if the defense loses steam late it may find those 5-yard 1st-and-10 efforts moving closer to 7 or 8 yards.

No matter what, expect a good-watching hard-fought game on both sides.