The NFL season kicks off with a matchup between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. Tommy Jaggi, writer for All22Breakdown, has followed and covered the team for years, and was kind enough to answer Inside The Pylon‘s questions about preparing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Last year seemed like a frustrating one for Ryan Shazier, given the injuries and difficulties cementing a starting role. How has he looked this preseason and what role do you expect him to play in the defense?
Tommy Jaggi: Shazier has been the most impressive defensive player for the Steelers in the preseason. His rare athleticism has been on display and he could be seen making plays all over the field. Though he was slowed down by injuries his rookie year, he won the starting role outright in training camp and is expected to be on the field for nearly every down.
Shazier will play a major role on the Steelers defense and will likely be the biggest playmaker on the field in the absence of Troy Polamalu. The Steelers are counting on him to be a huge contributor and I would not be shocked if we were considering him the best defensive player on the Steelers at the end of the year, and, potentially, one of the best middle linebackers in the league down the line.
How ready is Alvin “Bud” Dupree to contribute this year? The book on him in the lead-up to the draft was that he was an elite athlete that was raw in terms of instincts and football IQ. Does that still seem accurate? Is he a situational guy until he shows consistency, or does their defense talent level demand he play 3 downs each series?
TJ: Unfortunately for the Steelers, Dupree is nowhere near ready to play. He had a troublesome preseason and failed to consistently garner pressures against second and third string right tackles. There’s no doubt that Dupree has speed and explosion ‒ evidenced by his remarkable 4.56 40-yard dash, 42 inch vertical jump, and 11’6’’ broad jump ‒ but his athleticism is yet to translate to production on the field.
Obviously, Dupree is a project. Despite the lack of production from the Steelers at the outside linebacker position, Dupree will likely serve a limited role in the Steelers defense. It is very unlikely he serves as a three-down pass rusher at any point this year unless he proves himself worthy in limited defensive snaps.
Though it’s very early to say, Dupree may never be the incredible pass rusher the Steelers hoped for when he was drafted with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. He doesn’t show elite bend around the edge and is poor at using his hands. However, I feel Dupree’s talents would be best utilized as a chase strong side linebacker where he can see a play and use his athleticism to attack – very similar to Jamie Collins of the Patriots. However, temper expectations for this year.
Pittsburgh struggled early last season until the offensive line was solidified. Do you expect similar struggles up front at the start of this season with Pouncey injured or do you think the other pieces on the OL will be able to pick up the slack? Both teams could be without their starting Cs this game so I expect that to be a significant plot line. Can you tell us a bit about Cody Wallace and how you expect the Steelers to compensate for losing Pouncey? Does the loss of Pouncey alter their game planning at all?
TJ: Losing Maurkice Pouncey was a big blow to the offensive line, but all is not lost. Wallace has filled in admirably in Pouncey’s absence and should help fill the void once again. However, any time you lose an All-Pro center, it’s going to affect your team.
In Todd Haley’s offense, the ball normally comes out pretty quickly, so Wallace won’t be asked to do more than he is capable of. Where Pouncey will likely be missed most will be in his ability to get to the second level of a defense and block down field. The Steelers offensive line should still be solid with players like Kelvin Beachum and David DeCastro helping Roethlisberger stay upright. With that being said, the Steelers can ill-afford another injury along the interior of their offensive line as they are stretched thin for talent.
How the heck are the steelers so good at drafting wide receivers? Wallace, Sanders, Bryant, Brown are all later picks who have been exceptional. Are there particular traits the steelers look for? Are any particular coaches especially good with the receivers? Is the offense particularly friendly to receivers, and if so, how?
TJ: Drafting receivers happens to be the Steelers’ specialty. The front office loves bringing in fast receivers that can create separation and run after the catch. The Steelers have been fortunate to hit on receivers in the third round, such as Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, and are looking for a pair of more recent third rounders to do the same ‒ Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates.
It certainly helps that Todd Haley’s offense caters to this type of receiver, but players like Sanders and Wallace have proved effective elsewhere. The Steelers receivers complement each other very well, and Haley loves to find ways to get his playmakers the ball – especially Antonio Brown. The Steelers receiving corps finished second in the league in terms of yardage last year, and a similar output can be expected by one of the league’s deepest and most dynamic receiving corps.
What’s the key to slowing down Antonio Brown – press, bail, off, doubled?
TJ: In all honesty, many teams will allow Brown to take underneath yardage. They won’t mind giving up a couple yards a pop as long as they don’t give up many big plays. However, the best way to defend against Antonio Brown would be to double with an inside zone.
The cornerback should bump Brown at the line of scrimmage and overplay the sidelines – covering any outside breaks – while zone help should be available to cut off any route Brown tries to break to the inside. Even with this, however, Haley will find a way to get the ball in his hands (via screen passes, “pick” plays, etc.) Thus, it’s probably safe to say that Brown will get his share in the passing game. For this reason, some teams will try to take out their other receiving options and make the Steelers one-dimensional.
As Pats fans we often hear that Brady is having trouble getting on the same page with someone because the Pats’ offense is so complex. I’ve never heard this about Pittsburgh and to the contrary it seems that receivers generally pick it up quickly ‒ and also make a ton of unstructured plays when Ben Roethlisberger is doing his thing. Is this a fair statement? Is the Steelers offense relatively simple? Is Roethlisberger tough on his receivers? Is he liked by them? Does he work with them much in the off-season?
TJ: Credit for this should be passed around, from the quarterback, to the receivers, and to the coaching staff. The receivers are talented players – without a doubt – but it is Haley and the coaching staff who utilize the receivers to the best of their ability and give them a route tree that they will be successful with. Haley does an exceptional job of keeping the defense on its heels, but not over-complicating things for these young receivers.
In addition, Roethlisberger is a savvy veteran who takes the lead and gets his receivers ready to play. Like Brady, he’s not afraid to call a receiver out if they are in the wrong, but also puts the blame on himself when necessary. Big Ben and Wheaton were constantly on different pages at the beginning of last year, but the QB’s leadership helped pull it together. Because of that, Roethlisberger declared Wheaton a breakout candidate in 2015, and the two have been on fire so far.
From observing Steelers training camp, I’ve discovered that nearly the entire receiving core has taken a page from Antonio Brown’s book of success and stayed after practice every day to work on catching passes and running routes. Positive leadership deserves a lot of the credit for the success of the receivers so early in their careers.
It seems that Pittsburgh has a history of strong offensive and defensive coordinators, a personnel staff that’s separate from the coaching staff, and head coaches ‒ in Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher ‒ who are good with the media and giving motivational speeches but not necessarily as involved in running the offense or defense, implementing their own schemes, or play-calling. Do you think that’s fair? If not, what have been Tomlin’s (and Cowher’s) major influences on building the team and its system?
That has been a fair assessment up to this year, and it will continue to be. Tomlin is basically an overseer for the Steelers roster and a motivational speaker. Meanwhile, Haley and Keith Butler (and previously, Dick LeBeau) are the signal callers for the black and gold.
However, I believe it was Tomlin who was ready to move on from Coach LeBeau and his creative zone-blitzing defense in favor of his old specialty, the Cover 2. Though Tomlin won’t be calling the plays in from the sidelines, he is in large part responsible for the change in coaching staff and defensive scheme. So far, the Cover 2 defense has been a failure in the preseason, but it is unlikely to change anytime soon.
How do they view David DeCastro? He went to my alma mater, I haven’t heard too much about how he’s doing, and I’m not about ready to fire up the old all-22 films to review guard play.
TJ: I’ll save you the time: DeCastro has every bit lived up to his billing as a first round selection. Though he is just solid in the passing game, DeCastro grades out as one of the best road-grading guards in the NFL in terms of run blocking.
DeCastro’s development over the past few years has been largely responsible for the success of the run game in Pittsburgh. He is at his best when pulling and getting to the second level. He plays with a nasty attitude and possesses that hard-nosed Steelers mentality desired in any football player who rolls through the Steel City. He’s shown improvement from game to game and continues to get more consistent. So to put it simply, he’s doing quite well.
Statistically, the pass D was lousy in 2014 – 6th-most passing yards allowed, 5th-worst passer-rating against – and on paper, it’s arguably worse in 2015 with the retirements of longtime mainstays Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Can you make a case for improvement?
A case can be made, but not in the early going. Losing Polamalu, even at his age, was the biggest loss in the secondary. Shamarko Thomas’s shaky play in pass defense has caused the coaching staff to lose faith in him, and Mitchell was awful for the Steelers a season ago.
The lack of pass rush also deserves some of the blame for the woes in the secondary. Defensive backs should not be asked to cover for as long as they must in Pittsburgh, so it would certainly help if the defensive line could get some pressure on the quarterback.
The hope that the Steelers have against the pass comes with some new faces and healthy players. Shazier should help bolster a weak spot in the middle of the field and Brandon Boykin was a quality depth add who will have a chance to contribute this season. In addition, Mitchell and Cortez Allen are finally healthy after dealing with lingering injuries for a majority of the 2014 season.
Even so, the Cover 2 defense will undoubtedly come with a learning curve and, despite all the high draft picks, the Steelers defense may not be as talented right now as what some people think. Perhaps improvement in the pass defense can be made later in the season, but it won’t be pretty starting off.
How much will the Steelers miss Martavis Bryant through the first 4 weeks?
Even though the Steelers have a talented receiving core and selected Coates in the third round this year, Martavis Bryant’s presence on the field cannot be replaced. Bryant is a special athlete. His ability to long stride and burn past defenders with ease reminds me Randy Moss. Obviously, Bryant is nowhere near that level at this point, but he brings another element to the game that makes it incredibly difficult for teams to matchup against him – especially in single coverage. Wheaton and Darius Heyward-Bey will attempt to fill the void left by Bryant, while Coates is likely too raw and inexperienced to contribute from the get-go.
The Steelers offense was barely above average through the first six weeks of the 2014 season. However, since Bryant exploded onto the scene against the Texans in week seven, he helped the boost the Steelers to the second best ranked offense in the league in terms of yardage. Saying Bryant will be missed is an understatement.
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