How EJ Manuel Can Capitalize on Aggressive Steelers Defense

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How EJ Manuel Can Capitalize on Aggressive Steelers Defense
Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

EJ Manuel will make his return for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, as announced by the Bills on Friday, after missing the past four games with a knee injury.

In the past, we might pity the plight of a rookie quarterback coming back from a month-long layover to face the Steelers' vaunted defense.

That's because in the past, the Steelers had a vaunted defense.

Steelers defense, 2013
Stats Points Yards Turnovers Pass yards/game Y/PA Rush yards/game Y/RA
Steelers defense 208 2730 6 210 6.6 131.3 4.2
NFL Rank 23 12 30 4 21 31 19

Pro-Football-Reference.com

This year, the Steel Curtain is made of the softest Persian silk. Where quarterbacks were once fleeing for their lives in the face of Blitzburgh's high-pressure scheme, they are now kicking back in their La-Z-Boy, scanning the defense with the urgency grandpa uses to scan his TV Guide.

The Steelers have sent extra men on the rush on 100 of 263 opponent dropbacks this season (38 percent) and got especially aggressive against the Titans, Bears, Raiders and Patriots

The problem with blitzing is that, when it's blocked, the quarterback has an easy read to find the open space in the defense and pick up yards.

Sometimes, those yards on a blitz pickup can quickly turn into big plays. 

Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel threw a 10-yard strike to Greg Jennings on a curl route that resulted in a 70-yard touchdown because of the aggressive Steelers swarming the ball.

Because the extra defender is coming from the right side on the Steelers blitz, that left a window on that side of the field for Cassel to fit the ball through.

Once Cassel delivered the throw, the Steelers defensive back came crashing downhill toward the receiver, but a side-step eluded him and some creative open-field running took him the rest of the way for the score.

Their aggressive style of play doesn't apply simply to the passing game, though. Their aggression will lead to some opportunities in the running game as well.

The Steelers have struggled against the run, with the second-highest totals in the league this season in rush attempts, yards and touchdowns. Those struggles have led to the Steelers loading up the box against the run and aggressively pursuing the ball in their effort to stop the bleeding.

Their aggression, however, has led to a lack of fundamentals.

"They're the same keys as every week," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau of shutting down the run, via Steelers.com. "We've gotta get in our gap, we've gotta get support, and we've got to tackle well. Swarm the ball. Play our defense.

"We've got to make sure that we get back to our fundamentals," he added. "We've gotten away from those too far—that's on me, and we're leaving too many windows, and we're getting hit in some of those windows."

The Bills can capitalize on that aggression with use of the read-option.

Who could forget the 93-yard touchdown run by Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor against the Steelers in Week 8? That play kickstarted a 21-18 win for Oakland, and it was nothing more than the Raiders capitalizing on an aggressive Steelers defense.

The Raiders came out in the 21 personnel grouping of two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers, with the Steelers fielding just three defensive backs on the play with eight men in the box.

The read on the play was linebacker LaMarr Woodley (circled in red).

Once Woodley came up to defend the running back, Pryor's decision had been made for him. He took off through the middle of the Steelers defense, and with only three defenders left that could do anything about it—and enough blockers to take them all out of the play—all Pryor had to do was weave his way through the traffic and turn on the burners on his way to one of the highlights of the week.

And of course, if the Steelers focus on taking away EJ Manuel's running ability on those read-option plays, Manuel has a pretty good running back he can hand off the ball to in C.J. Spiller.

Manuel has speed (4.65 40-yard dash at the combine), and when he gets his 6'5", 237-pound frame moving forward, he can be tough to bring down. Let's not forget, however, that he is coming off a knee injury that kept him off the field for four weeks. His wheels may not be fully inflated yet.

The Bills probably won't have Manuel move around all that much as they ease him back into the game. 

In any case, the Steelers' aggressive style of play against the run will, inevitably, lead to some opportunities in the passing game.

Steelers defense vs. play action
Play type Comp Att Comp % Yds YPA TD INT Rate
Play action 35 62 56.5 513 8.3 4 1 98.4
No play action 113 178 63.5 1235 6.9 5 3 86.2

ProFootballFocus.com

With help from Pro Football Focus, we find that the Steelers have been burned by the play-action pass this season. They're giving up an extra 1.4 YPA and they've given up nearly half their touchdowns that way despite play-action passes accounting for just 62 of their 240 pass attempts (25.8 percent).

Against the Patriots, those weaknesses were in full focus. Quarterback Tom Brady went 8-of-12 for 239 yards (19.9 YPA) and two touchdowns with the play-action pass against the Steelers in Week 9. That might have been some of the first tape they turned on when studying up on the Steelers.

This play did a great job of capitalizing on everything that's bothering the Steelers right now.  

The Patriots came out in the 12 personnel grouping—one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers. The formation and personnel give the illusion of a run, and the Steelers defense crept up to the line to stop it.

Brady carried out the play-action fake perfectly, with the Steelers all pursuing running back Stevan Ridley while Brady rolled to the other side.

The fake went to the offense's right, but tight end Michael Hoomanawanui slipped through the defense from right to left, where there was a fairly large gap in the defense for him to catch the pass.

Brady threw across his body and got the ball to "Hooman" two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The tight end then turned upfield for a 17-yard gain.

The Steelers are a talented team, but they are in desperation mode. That has led to some poor fundamentals on defense, leaving the Bills plenty of opportunities to capitalize with big plays. 

 

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.

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