December 13, 2018 / 10:52 PM / in a year

Take 5: Steelers' D vs. Brady headlines Week 15

The Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t beaten the New England Patriots since 2011.

Dec 9, 2018; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass against the Miami Dolphins during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In the five losses since, Pittsburgh allowed 34.6 points per game, never holding New England to less than 27. Tom Brady totaled 1,624 yards, 14 touchdowns and one interception, while Rob Gronkowski had 498 yards and five scores despite missing a game. You get the idea.

Ben Roethlisberger & Co. might win a shootout, but it sure would help if the Steelers’ defense could stem the tide.

1. Pittsburgh still searching for Brady antidote

After Brady torched their passive zones in the 2016 AFC championship game, the Steelers spent 2017 preparing with a different approach predicated on man coverage.

It worked OK last December, but safety Sean Davis couldn’t handle Gronkowski (nine catches, 168 yards) late. Gronk totaled 69 yards on what proved to be — thanks to the old catch rule — the game-winning drive.

This season, coordinator Keith Butler has relied more on matchup zones, many of which function like Cover-1 blitz (man coverage, one deep safety and five rushers).

That sounds simple, but Butler creates confusion by varying which five are rushing, often dropping pass-rushers T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree and blitzing inside linebacker Vince Williams or slot corner Mike Hilton. Through disguise these blitzes often come free — and when they don’t, Williams (4.5 sacks, 10 QB hits) can bowl over running backs or swim past guards.

Meanwhile, Davis plays center field as five others pattern-match to routes from off-coverage, keeping eyes on the quarterback and looking for turnovers.

Against the Patriots, however, these tactics might be fruitless unless executed with razor-sharp precision.

While some (namely the Titans) have blitzed Brady successfully this year, the Steelers’ fifth rusher will often arrive too late to factor. Brady distributes quicker than anyone, especially against off-coverage.

More importantly, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a master of motion and intertwined releases from stack and bunch sets, creating rubs and confusion off the snap. Such designs can blur pattern-matching responsibilities and create blown coverages, which have plagued Pittsburgh at times. When the Steelers match correctly, shrewd designs will still create mismatches (like rookie safety Terrell Edmunds on Josh Gordon, or Watt on James White or Gronkowski).

Pittsburgh’s D isn’t necessarily doomed again, but it must be extremely sharp to play this style.

Most helpful might be otherworldly performances from inside rushers Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave. All three can dominate for stretches, but they must push the pocket quickly and often to disrupt Brady.

2. Bears could get sack-happy vs. Packers

Green Bay’s offense wasn’t schematically different in its first game post-Mike McCarthy, but Aaron Rodgers’ ball placement was much sharper last Sunday against Atlanta. He minimized the low-and-left misfires and hit tight windows downfield, especially on back-shoulder throws.

That sharpness will be needed in Chicago, but it might not matter if Rodgers holds the ball the way he did against Atlanta. Despite the Falcons’ middling rush, Rodgers took four sacks and needed superhuman efforts to evade others. A handful of blitzes caught Rodgers off-guard, freezing him and leading to sacks or hits.

The Bears’ rush (20 sacks over the last six games) is much more dangerous and often has more time to win because Chicago’s disguised coverages take longer to identify. The Packers could again be without right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and have injury questions at guard (Lane Taylor, foot; Byron Bell on IR).

In Week 1, the Bears sacked Rodgers twice in 18 minutes before he was hurt; he then distributed more quickly after returning hobbled. Healthy again, Rodgers might opt more for sandlot-mode Sunday. Secretly, that might be what Khalil Mack & Co. prefer.

3. Cowboys looking at mirror-image defense

While studying the Colts’ defense this week, the Cowboys probably see a version of themselves from 2015 or ‘16.

Indy’s unit — coordinated by former Dallas linebackers coach Matt Eberflus — is built around the same zone concepts and D-line slants and stunts that Cowboys coordinator Rod Marinelli has long favored. It’s also littered with unheralded starters, much like Marinelli’s group before stars emerged the past two seasons.

One lesser-known Colt is Denico Autry, the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week with five sacks in the last two games. Some were merely clean-ups, but the violent and undersized interior lineman is dangerous as a slanting penetrator or looper, and Dallas could be vulnerable with guard Zack Martin (knee) ailing.

In coverage, the Colts will likely use more Cover-3 than Cover-2 to get an extra safety in the box against Ezekiel Elliott. Dak Prescott must take advantage by hitting intermediate and deep seams without the erratic overthrows that have cropped up recently.

4. How will the Rams counter Ertz?

Whether it’s Carson Wentz or Nick Foles playing quarterback, Philadelphia’s offense runs through tight end Zach Ertz, who presents a few matchup concerns for Los Angeles.

When playing zone, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips leans toward Cover-3, but the Eagles have done well to spring Ertz in Cover-3 seams out of concepts featuring multiple vertical routes. The Rams could counter with more Cover-4 (quarters), which would often put a safety over the top and a linebacker underneath the tight end.

In man coverage, safety John Johnson and linebacker Cory Littleton usually handle opposing tight ends, but both have concerns against Ertz: Johnson’s smaller frame can be boxed out while Littleton’s aggressiveness is risky against crafty route-runners.

Don’t be surprised if Phillips counters Ertz with cornerback Aqib Talib, who has the twitchiness to mirror and the length and physicality to disrupt at the catch point. Talib looked more comfortable in Week 14, his second game back from injury, and has matched tight ends well before.

5. Jackson draws improved Bucs’ D

Though not stingy, Tampa Bay’s defense has been far more competitive under interim coordinator Mark Duffner. Duffner mostly scrapped Mike Smith’s traditional zone coverages — where defenders drop to landmarks on the field and react from there — to matchup zones that adapt to given routes. The approach has curbed explosive gains while creating tighter windows between the numbers.

Now officially the Ravens’ starting quarterback, Lamar Jackson has been touch-and-go as a passer. Often erratic outside, he’s most comfortable between the numbers, which makes this his biggest test yet through the air after facing four of the NFL’s worst defenses. If his ball placement wavers, turnovers could follow — the Bucs have seven picks and eight takeaways in the last three games.

Still, with the Ravens’ defense and run game (of which Jackson is a huge part) at their best over the last month, the rookie quarterback shouldn’t have to throw often. The Bucs have allowed 5.4 yards per carry since Week 7 (third-worst over that span), when linebacker Kwon Alexander tore his ACL, but also when rookie defensive tackle Vita Vea began starting.

Vea flashes the brute strength and nimble feet that got him picked 12th overall, but he often plays too high, undermining his leverage. He’s been slow to diagnose backfield action, making him late following the ball and shedding his blocker before the runner goes by. That’s very common for rookies and will improve with time, but it could prove disastrous against Baltimore’s wealth of misdirection designs involving Jackson.

—Field Level Media

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