Defense Must Find Quick Fix For Sudden Vulnerability To Big Passing Plays

Through the first several weeks of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were among the top secondaries in the league, not just in terms of limiting total yardage output, but also with respect to limiting the big play. Not just the explosive plays, but the huge, field-flipping plays, which often end up as scores.

Part of that, admittedly, was due at least to a degree simply to luck. Alex Kozora wrote an article—or was it created a video—several weeks back highlighting some of the instances this season in which the defense got away with preventing a big play that was set up for them to give up.

The defense has not been getting so lucky anymore in recent weeks, and it’s beginning to become a trend, which could become a problem, if the problem is not addressed quickly. As it has always been since the Dick LeBeau system was installed, this system is predicated upon keeping the play in front of you.

Through weeks one through five, the Steelers did not allow a single passing play of 40 yards or more. Not one. It is a big reason why they were leading the league in passing yards allowed per game at that point. I can’t recall if they were the only team to have not done that at that point, but they were certainly one of the few.

Now, five games later, they have allowed seven plays of 40 yards or more, starting with a big 57-yard touchdown from Alex Smith to De’Anthony Thomas in Kansas City, though of course they went on to win that game.

The floodgates, since, have opened. While they did not give up any huge plays through the air against the Bengals a week later, they have given up two in each of their past three games, and they have hurt. Given that they have played twice this week, they have given up three touchdowns of 60 or more yards just in the past several days.

It started on the other side of the bye week, with Matthew Stafford in Detroit finding success getting his receivers in space. He found Marvin Jones for 43 yards, and threw Eric Ebron open on an intermediate pass that went for 44. Mercifully, neither of them scored.

But Jacoby Brissett had about two good passes all night on Sunday, and both of them reached their destination in the end zone. First it was a 60-yard strike to Donte Concrief, beating Artie Burns. Then it was a 61-yarder to Chester Rogers, attacking the Steelers’ Cover-3 with four verticals.

Just last night, Marcus Mariota beat the defense for two long plays, including a 75-yard touchdown to Rishard Mathews, beating Coty Sensabaugh on a deep post, with safety Robert Golden missing a tackle on the back end.

Topped off by another 42-yard hookup with Delanie Walker down the seam, that’s seven 40-plus yard passes allowed, including four touchdowns, in the past five games. The Steelers cannot allow this to continue to happen.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • mem359

    Two things the Steelers did in the past to limit these sorts of plays:
    – Big cushions for the DBs
    – Defensive players didn’t usually see meaningful playing time until their 3rd season (more experience and system knowledge)

    And fans wailed and moaned about taking away the dink-and-dunk and getting young talent on the field… They are keeping points off the board fairly well, despite the big plays. Hopefully Butler will continue tinkering and adjusting to reduce the current flaws.

  • Dan

    They don’t really have a good deep coverage safety. Lots of SS type guys but no true centerfielder. That would help a lot. I also think the CBs have been more aggressive, too. Which has its pros and cons.

  • Nolrog

    They have to find a way to stop those long plays while not opening up underneath in the process.

  • capehouse

    Agree. You want to play your draft picks then you’re gonna have some growing pains.

  • Taylor Williams

    Davis is more than capable of being a deep safety if the Steelers keep him at FS. They keep moving him around. Mitchel is a SS playing the wrong position, so is Golden (who’s just a ST player). I’m not sold on Wilcox and Dangerfield isn’t getting any playing time for whatever reason.


    I think you have to break down each one separately….Burns was noted to be a quick study. He needs to do one thing or the other…concede the 8-10 pass and make the tackle, or play up closer and challenge off the LOS. Playing a 10 yd cushion and trying to make up the ground on the throw in the air, is just going to invite more stop and go type routes.

    S over the top when the WR1 is on with Sensabaugh’s side.

    Aside from that…that FS has to be able to finish tackles in space…comical watching Mitchell and Golden the last two weeks…they must find a FS in the draft…period. Or a SS and move Davis to FS.


    This ^

    Davis is more of a FS…adequate at SS. This position has to be high on Tomlin/Colbert’s list…Mitchell is what he is, but now he’s hit that point where his availability is going to be hit or miss from week to week…time to move on to a younger player.

  • Dan

    I’ve always seen him as more of an SS though I think I am in the minority there. He was moved around a lot at Maryland, usually out of necessity. The Steelers tried him at nickel which didn’t work and then moved him to strong safety. They probably don’t want to move him again and will let him develop where he is. I just think he does run support and intermediate coverage better. Mitchell has a similar skill set, but is older and more expensive. No one else is particularly great in coverage.

  • EdJHJr

    If not those 2 plays and about 2 on offense, I’d have nothing to complain about

  • Rob S.

    I think a lot of it comes down to discipline and attention to detail. Most if not all of Artie Burns’ deep plays have come on either biting on double moves or scramble drills where he gets flat-footed and loses the receiver. The first one on Thursday looks like it may have been a quarter quarter half defense (can’t remember the name for it), Davis tried to jump the 10-yard out route which opened up the middle for an easy completion because Sensabaugh was playing outside leverage. As for the second one, it looks like they may have caught us in the right defense running a cover 2 beater and to be perfectly honest, the seam has killed the Steelers for at least a decade and we still can’t seem to figure it out. Those are the only specific examples I can recall, but I’m sure there’s other instances of players trying to do too much, or just getting complacent after they successfully cover the initial route.

  • Rob S.

    I think there in lies the problem. The secondary is becoming aggressive making plays on the short ball and trying to get turnovers. When they guess wrong it ends up being a big play. The last few years under Dick LeBeau it was the opposite, play it safe give up 5-7 yards at a time and make the tackle. For me, if they can cut it down to one big play a game while still playing tight coverage underneath and getting turnovers, I’ll take the trade-off.

  • Alan Tman

    I’m extremely happy with the defense. My only complaint is not enough production from the OLB, Artie Burns is a little lackadaisical and doesn’t want to tackle anyone. The offense just needs to be more consistent and we should be fine.

  • AndyR34

    Dangerfield doesn’t get playing time because he is on the practice squad!!! Duh! Otherwise, I’m impressed that you know more about the other players skill sets than the coaches do.

  • AndreH

    I think Artie “Get” Burns need to step his game up. He has gotten to comfortable and arrogant, maybe its time to sit him down and send him a message. Tackling is not hard to do you just have to want to do it. The safety position is definitely one that needs to be addressed early in the 2018 draft. They must also develop depth in this area. Robert Golden, JJ Wilcox and Mike Mitchell are not going to cut it. How about giving Brian Allen a chance to learn the position? He definitely has the size and ability to get the job done.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    In a horribly unfair situation, I was unable to watch this last Thursday night game, so I can’t talk from anything I saw. But the plays mentioned seem to have in common that M. Mitchell was out and would normally cover over the top. Golden just doesn’t have that same coverage.

    And now that the league is going after Burns more, he’s getting burned regularly. He is the weakest player on the defense, regardless of where he was drafted and they have to correct his flaws quickly.

    If they can fix how he just runs next to the play not wanting to tackle, that would go a long way.

  • AndyR34

    Every defensive scheme has at least one or more weaknesses. Pro OC’s know how to attack those weaknesses. Most DC’s know how to disguise their schemes…most pro QB’s learn to detect the disguise and the scheme. It then turns to the skill-sets of both the offensive and defensive players. LeBeau’s philosophy is predicated on making the other team work their way down the field slowly, but expecting them to make a mistake…fumble, bad pass, deflection, int., etc. This can be maddening to impatient fans, especially when the defensive players are inexperienced, old, or not that skilled. A press, or man coverage will tend to give up bigger plays because of mistakes or mis-matches in athleticism. Pick your poison!!! It seems most posters prefer the latter because it is easier to assign blame.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    I have been praying for this day to come and am ecstatic. Please note that I love when the D is aggressive. I will take all those stops and turnovers and sacks any day if they can simply minimize the amount of big plays. Because in taking the risk you will definitely allow the occasionally long TD. I am actually good with it.

    So far they have been giving some plays up but please note they are still winning. Yes, winning! Basically, I will take it, because the D is not quite there yet. They are getting close and if they had one shutdown corner, the FS job would be so much easier as he would rarely worry about that side of the field. Joe Haden has been good with that even though he is sure to give up a couple of long TDs as well.

    The tradeoff is definitely worth it. There have been tons of plays where the pressure gets to the QB before he can see or throw the ball……even when his receiver is open for a long one. Then you have the potential for INTs, fumbles, tipped balls, fluttering throws that get defended. So many good things that help win games.

    Of course it would be great if Artie develops sooner, and if and when they figure out how to play FS (Byard would look great playing the back end for the Steelers!). I love the fact that Butler has been allowed to be a little more aggressive. He has always said he loves to do so.

  • cencalsteeler

    That is who the Pats will exploit- Artie Burns and the soft free safety coverage. If we don’t make the SB, look for this weakness. We shore up the D with better tackling and a ball hawking safety and watch out!

  • cencalsteeler

    Great post!

  • Kevin artis

    How about making the tackle. Remember what LeBeau use to say, “stop the run, don’t get beat deep and tackle the catch”.

  • Ralph Wagner

    Do ya think so? LOL

    Go Steelers

  • Quan Hurst

    It’s the safeties fault on every last one of those big completions. Our safety play is sub par

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    Charlie Casserly said after the game that the Steelers don’t have a true #1 corner. Couldn’t agree more. Burns is so lazy he barely even wants to push the receiver out of bounds never mind trying to actually tackle him. He gave up one first down where I think he could have pushed the receiver to stop him from getting 2 feet inbound but he didn’t lift a finger.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Damn.. I’m looking for the game still, but that’s not new for him where contact is concerned.

    I was bummed early in the year when he was just giving up runs to his side or getting manhandled while being blocked, but now hes giving up the long ball too may need to sit for a game to get his barings there.

  • GoSteelerz

    I really liked Byard coming out of college. I hoped we would draft him… Oh, well, I like where we are headed. Hopefully we can continue to improve and build for the future when Ben retires.

  • Steve

    The Pats are going to exploit the long Bomb issue 12/17 if the Steelers don’t make adjustments.

  • Steve

    We need to have a QB ready when Ben retires, to take his place. I like what KC did by trading up and drafting Mahomes before Alex Smith retires. Smith is 33, two years younger than Ben.

  • GoSteelerz

    Well, yes, that would be part of building for the future. I was talking about the defensive side of the ball. Offensively, QB and TE are key issues. I think we’ll be glad we have Dobbs later, as I think being a quality backup is his floor. His ceiling? I don’t know. Because of that, ensuring a Super Bowl talent at QB will be vital in the coming season or two. It’ll be nice to have a Super Bowl caliber team ready to utilize such a talent when we acquire/develop it.

  • Ehrren Lee Phyzeque

    This is all the more reason why the Steelers need to play defense through their offense. It’s a Passing League now and has been. You can’t expect teams to not give up Splash plays. It’s nearly impossible. With the way the rules are structured it’s much easier to outscore teams than it is to prevent big plays. Goodell rules practically made defense an afterthought. I almost feel sorry for these defensive backs in that League because it’s near impossible to actually cover these receivers. How many shut down type defenses are there any more in the NFL? But how many high scoring teams do you see by comparison. It’s much more reasonable to expect a team to outscore another team than to prevent opponents from making plays with these Adolph Goodell rules. We need to be burying teams under points, stacking points early in games particularly the first halves of games, then forcing them to play catch-up. Get up on them early, often, and go for the throat. Establish control of the game early, go into ball control mode keeping the opponents offense off the field. Simple as that. This team is built for that. All the ingredients are there. Defense through offense. Haley Roethlisberger Tomlin better get it together quick. Even if they manage to get out of the AFC getting past New England, the NFC contenders are looking pretty formidable right about now.