What in the World Is Wrong with the Pittsburgh Steelers' Passing Game?
It was evident very early in the game that the goal of the Titans was to stuff the run, crowd the line and force the Steelers wide receivers to play physical football with the Titans cornerbacks.
The Titans were able to amp up their coverage as the threat of a running game diminished, and force the Steelers out of their typical routes while creating pressure on the quarterback.
As you can see in the images, as the game progressed, and the Steelers offense struggled, the Titans coverage schemes became more and more aggressive. The Titans did a nice job bringing the pressure up the middle, but much of the concerns with play-calling and execution were a product of adjustments the Titans made, and the Steelers did not.
Early on, the Titans cornerbacks were respecting the speed of the Steelers wide receivers, while the front seven were still doing their due diligence against the run. Roethlisberger was able to find spots in coverage and move the chains. The wideouts were also able to work the middle of the field with drag routes and crossing patterns.
However, for all the speed the Steelers wide receivers have, they still struggled at times to handle the harassment downfield that the Titans secondary was dishing out. The Steelers did a nice job testing the Titans defense deep early, but the Titans defensive backs did a great job of running with the receivers.
In many cases, it was when Roethlisberger extended the play with his legs that the receivers were able to come back to the football and find soft spots to make catches.
Moving ahead to this point in the game, the Titans had been hit with some deep throws, and so were still playing off coverage, hoping to protect from the long reception. The problem for the Steelers was, even though they were able to get this coverage and work deep, the receivers were not able to make the contested catch. The score was still close and neither side felt a need to make much in the way of adjustments.
Here you see later in the game, and the Titans have turned up the heat on the Steelers receivers. As the game went on, you saw more and more tight coverage at the snap. The Steelers receivers didn't have a clean release from the line of scrimmage and it knocked all of the timing off the passing game.
The Steelers also made some changes at this point. They stopped working the middle of the field, instead settling for stop routes and hitch routes. This almost played into the hands of what the Titans wanted to do on defense. The Steelers abandoned the play action entirely, and essentially shortened their own field with their routes.
You pair up A-gap pressure with short, contested pass patterns and you understand why Roethlisberger was under so much duress in the second half.
Finally, we see toward the end of the game that the Titans chose to play off again in that soft Prevent defense, and the Steelers were able to march down the field. The late touchdown the Steelers got was as much a function of what the Titans chose to do on defense than any sort of late rally by the Steelers.
Throughout the game there were multiple plays where it was evident that Roethlisberger wanted to get rid of the football much sooner, but his receivers were covered up. At that point, the play of the offensive line breaks down and Roethlisberger takes the hit.
Looking ahead to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers have to find a way to attack tight coverage through motion and shifts, hoping for a mismatch, and continue to use the middle of the field. They cannot allow the Bengals defense to dictate the way the Titans' was able to. If they don't, the odds of going 0-2 on the season will go up in a hurry.
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