Steel City Underground

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I’d prefer to write this article during any other week.  I’d prefer a lot of things, but we don’t get to do what we want in this life, or else somebody else would be writing about me playing for the Steelers rather than me doing it. It’s time to look ahead and try and figure out what the “Weakest Link” might be during this week’s upcoming contest between the Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs.

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The Chiefs, at this early point in the season, look like the class of the league. They are the only remaining unbeaten team in the league, sitting at 5-0.  The Chiefs are second in the league in total offense (YPG) at 414.2 YPG, ninth in passing (258) and second in rushing (156.2).

On the defensive side of the ball, things aren’t quite so intimidating.  The Chiefs are twenty-seventh in the league in total defense, allowing 366 YPG.  They are twenty-fifth in passing (248) and twentieth against the run (118).

The Steelers’ performance rushing last week allowed the Jaguars to move up a spot in total rush defense, leaving the basement of the league and letting the LA Chargers settle into the cellar.  (As a pointless note, but one that again denotes the silliness inherent in statistical analysis, Roethlisberger’s 300+ yards in the passing game – as ineffectual as they were – pushed the number one Jaguars’s pass defense down to third).

So where do we look to find the weakest link this week?  Is it the Steelers rush defense, which has been suspect?  Is it the pass defense, which may be challenged for the first time this season by a capable quarterback in Alex Smith?  Is it the run game, and trying to find a way to get the “greatest all-purpose back in the league” – Le’Veon Bell – to perform like he is just that?

Nope, not in my view anyway.

After last week’s debacle, there is only really one place to look for the potential weak link in this Steelers team – their passing game.

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Zach Metkler did an absolutely brilliant breakdown on the problems in the passing game last week.  I know everyone wants to blame Ben Roethlisberger.  There is no question that he has been a part of the problem. But, as I said in the GBU article about that game, it’s not just Ben. The receivers and the offensive line need to be given their fair share of the blame as well.

Let’s talk about the O-line for a second.  Roethlisberger was sacked only twice last week and for the season has only been sacked nine times.  There are only eight teams who have given up fewer sacks than the Steelers: the Falcons, Cowboys, Buccaneers, Redskins, Chargers, Rams, Jaguars and Saints. It’s not that the Steelers offensive linemen are giving up sacks, but that’s not the only measure of protection.

At least one, and possibly two of the INTs Ben threw against the Jags, were a direct result of either pressure or the defensive lineman getting up in the air to deflect or bat down the pass. Zach discussed how Ramon Foster failed to maintain contact with the Jaguars defensive player and thereby allowed the defensive player to get his arms up and deflect the pass, resulting in a pick-six. Foster the only guilty party, however.

It could just be me, but it really feels like Ben is getting balls batted down at the line of scrimmage at a much higher rate this year than normal, and that is a direct result of the offensive line failing to keep the defensive players from doing that.

The bigger problem, however, is with the receiving corp.

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We thought at the beginning of the season (and continue to keep trying to follow this narrative even now) that this offense was “loaded” with weapons. To this point of the season, I can find one: Antonio Brown.

The rest of this group currently is capable of little more than frightening a kitten; a really nervous kitten that is afraid of its own shadow. Take a look at how the distribution has broken down through five games.

Player REC YDS YDS/REC
Antonio Brown 40 545 13.6
Le’Veon Bell 27 144 5.3
Jesse James 18 151 8.4
Martavis Bryant 15 204 13.6
JuJu Smith-Schuster 12 160 13.3
Eli Rogers 6 54 9
Justin Hunter 2 11 5.5

For the moment, let’s take Bell out of the equation, because for the most part this season his catches have been nothing more than dump off or escape valve catches, normally with little or no YAC. The combined number of catches for the rest of the group is 53.  That’s split between five guys.  Out of 93 receptions between all the non-RB receivers, Brown has made 43% of those catches. Add in Bell’s 27 receptions and Brown still is responsible for 33% of the receptions on the team.

From the perspective of targets, this is how it all matches up.

Player Targets Percentage of Targets Percentage of Receptions
Antonio Brown 64 33.70% 33.30%
Le’Veon Bell 33 17.30% 22.50%
Martavis Bryant 31 16.30% 15%
Jesse James 25 13.20% 12.50%
JuJu Smith-Schuster 20 10.50% 10%
Eli Rogers 11 5.80% 5%
Justin Hunter 5 2.60% 1.60%

Note: James Conner has one target but no receptions.

Again, Bell skews things a bit, but if you take his 33 targets out, then Browns percentage jumps to 41%.

The point is, despite Ben saying he wants to get more people involved and stop focusing in solely on Brown – he isn’t. And again, that’s not all on him.  The other receivers are not consistently getting open, nor are they consistently battling for the ball and making combat catches. They aren’t building trust with their quarterback.

I will cut both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant a little slack because one is a rookie, and the other may still have some rust getting back to a comfort level in the offense. But, Jesse James has taken a step backward, and Vance McDonald isn’t even a factor to this point.  Eli Rogers is not the answer folks.  There is a reason that he was moved down in the depth chart. And despite high hopes for Justin Hunter in training camp, he also has been nothing but a tease. So where are all these weapons?

That’s why the passing offense as a whole needs to figure out how to get things going against Kansas City. As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t an intimidating Chiefs pass defense and the pass rush, while respectable, is not what it has been in prior seasons.  This is a game where the Steelers passing offense could try and get a healthy dose of improvement, and one in which I think they need to.

If the Steelers can’t figure out how to weaponize some of their other players, the passing game will continue to stagnate as teams go back to double- and triple-teaming Brown the entire game and letting single coverage be effective against the rest of the receiving group. I would not have anticipated this being the case, but right now, the Steelers’ Passing Game – You are the Weakest Link.





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