By Andrea Hangst,
The Pittsburgh Steelers pass defense desperately needs a wake-up call: It doesn’t matter how few passing yards you allow per game if opposing teams make the most of the limited yards they can put up.
Though the Steelers are currently a top-five defense in passing yards allowed per game (190.3) and completions per game (17.7), they’re just 25th in the league in average opponent touchdowns per game (2.0) and 17th in yards per completion allowed (10.8).
Considering that they took on the Oakland Raiders, who ranked seventh in the league in average passing yardage per game, had the third-most per-game pass attempts, the 10th-most passing touchdowns per game and seventh-most passing first downs per game (despite their 0-2 record heading into Sunday), the Steelers should have been better prepared to defend the pass.
But instead, their secondary—primarily their cornerbacks and safety Ryan Mundy—looked completely exposed.
Pittsburgh left receivers uncovered, single-covered others while defenders shadowed no one, got turned around on their men and failed to guard the sidelines, resulting in easy Oakland first downs and a 34-31 loss.
It’s a cop-out to say that it’s simply because the Steelers have struggled to win in Oakland over the years (five wins, nine losses since 1970, with the last win being in 1995). Any team is beatable, no matter where they’re played. There is no “Oakland curse” that resulted in the Steelers dropping to 1-2 on Sunday—it was the Steelers, and primarily their defense, which led to defeat.
In promoting Keenan Lewis to starter after letting William Gay go in free agency, the Steelers were hoping to get younger and faster at cornerback, allowing them more success when in man or press coverage.
That hope has yet to pay off on the field in any significant way (aside from Week 2, against the New York Jets); when the Steelers tried to play close against Oakland, they still found themselves out of position and their coverages never really seemed to match up with the plays the Raiders were running.
It didn’t help matters much that Pittsburgh couldn’t put together enough of a pass rush to force quarterback Carson Palmer to make mistakes while throwing under duress. But if you have to simply rely on your front seven to force a quarterback into throwing too quickly in order to have success when covering receivers, then clearly, something’s amiss.
[poll id="2"] There’s an apparent lack of discipline in the Steelers’ secondary—and I’m not just talking about the succession of questionable hits from Mundy we’ve seen this season. They look confused, allowing receivers to easily get enough separation to pull down passes, especially when it comes to converting first downs.
But the worst issue the Steelers have had is preventing completions outside the numbers. The confusion they have in the middle of the field seems to be compounded on the outside, where there’s less room for receivers to run, but also less margin of error when it comes to coverage.
Pittsburgh needs to be far less concerned with how few passing yards it’s allowing on average (just 209 to Palmer on Sunday) and more concerned with the depth of completions it is giving up and the first downs. It’s primarily the secondary’s fault that the Steelers have been allowing drive after scoring drive.
Prior to the Raiders game, corners Ike Taylor, Lewis and Cortez Allen allowed 21 of the 23 passes thrown their way to be completed and gave up two touchdowns—terrible numbers that are likely only going to get worse after the full statistics from the Raiders game have been compiled.
Luckily, Pittsburgh has a good enough passing game to keep the score close, but again, that is still no excuse. Either the Steelers’ corners get their collective act together in the Week 4 bye, or next season might see a full rebuild of the secondary.