A physical mismatch as the Pittsburgh Steelers stink up “The Linc”

A physical mismatch as the Pittsburgh Steelers stink up “The Linc”

The Steelers was crushed by the Eagles 35-13 in Philadelphia on Sunday in a game defined by its physical mismatch. Unfortunately, I was present during the carnage, and can confirm that it was as bad as it seemed. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at how the Eagles whipped the Steelers, with some silver linings for comfort.

Broad Street Bullies

Lincoln Financial Field is a few blocks from Broad Street, where the old Philadelphia Spectrum was located. The Spectrum was home to the Flyers, who in the 1970s were nicknamed the “Broad Street Bullies” for their rough-and-tumble tactics. The Bullies won a pair of Stanley Cups with their nasty, physical brand of hockey. Two generations later, the Eagles are reviving that spirit, minus the dirty play and missing teeth.

Philadelphia has molded itself into a championship contender by building from the inside out. They are big and physical, with a high draft and free agents along both lines. The difference in size and speed up front between the Eagles and Steelers was clearly personal. Philly looked noticeably bigger and faster, and they took advantage of those advantages right away.

On Pittsburgh’s opening possession, the Eagles stopped Najee Harris on an inside run, then chased Kenny Pickett out of the pocket and tracked him down for a short gain. That led to 3rd and 8. Philly blitzed, and this was the result:

You can see tight end Pat Freiermuth breaking up the middle of the field at the 35-yard line. By then, however, Pickett was on his back. Left tackle Dan Moore was knocked outside by edge rusher Hasson Reddick, while right guard James Daniels was abused by the 3-tech tackle and driven right into Pickett’s lap. Meanwhile, no one picked up the linebacker loop from Pickett’s left side. Reddick hit Pickett low, the tackle and linebacker hit him high, and Pickett went down in a heap. It was probably the worst way the game could have started for the offense – a three-and-out, which ended in a play where Pickett got hammered. In retrospect, it set the tone for the afternoon.

A look at the box score may suggest otherwise. The Steelers rushed for a season-high 144 yards. But that number was clever. Most of those yards were earned in turnovers when Philly conceded the run, or on quarterback scrambles, draw plays and reverses. When the Steelers ran the ball from traditional structures, they went nowhere. Harris had just 32 yards, with 18 coming on one play. The rest of his carries looked like this, with the line either unable to generate any kind of push or just getting knocked off the ball by Philly’s front:

This was a run outside the zone. The Eagles plugged all the holes on the play side, leaving Harris with no choice but to cut back. When he did, he ran into the rear end, which clamped over Moore’s face and knocked him into the B gap. To a man, the Eagles played with a lower pad level, made first contact and whizzed to the whistle. By contrast, look at how many Pittsburgh blockers stand and watch when the play ends. Sure enough, Harris cut away from the point of attack. But you want your offensive linemen to complete every play with their hands on a defender, not by passively observing. Philly won this play, and others like it, with technique, physicality and effort.

Philly’s dominance up front also affected the passing game. That discouraged Matt Canada from attempting throws into the middle of the field, which take longer to develop. The Steelers made one such throw to Freiermuth on his score in the 1st quarter. Pickett got a clean pocket from the line, stepped up and delivered a hit between the linebackers for a nice gain:

Mostly, though, there was too much pressure on Pickett’s face for him to feel comfortable setting his feet. He was kicked six times and avoided several others by climbing away. This relegated the passing attack to a series of bootlegs, receiver screens and timing throws to the sideline, like this:

And this:

And this:

Pickett was accurate with these throws, but it was tough to maintain the drift like this. The Eagles stepped up when they needed to and took them away. For example, Diontae Johnson’s screen was shown over 14 yards. On Pittsburgh’s next possession, they ran a similar screen to Steven Sims. That play lost three yards. On the drive after that, they threw another to Johnson that was almost intercepted.

A bigger problem was how the pressure began to affect Pickett. The speed with which the rush closed caused him to look for his controls almost immediately. 16 of Pickett’s 25 completions went for six yards or less. Many of his incompletions were wasted as he ran for his life. He fumbled once while trying to avoid being kicked. However, the game that bothered me the most is the one shown below. In the still frame, you can see Pickett with the ball on the Eagles logo near the 50-yard line. There’s a blitzer coming free to his right, and Pickett clearly sees him and prepares to bail from the pocket. However, had he stayed inside and held the ball, he would have found tight end Connor Heyward (83) breaking up the middle of the field:

It’s hard to blame Pickett for bailing. The blitzer is unlocked, and if he stands in, he’s going to get beat. This play is in the 4th quarter and Pickett had been hit a lot at that point. He had started to take his eyes off the receivers and anticipate the rush, which is a big problem for a quarterback. That’s exactly what happened here, as Pickett looked at the blitzer, tried to escape and was dropped for another sack:

Think back to Pickett’s debut against the Jets in Week 4, and the throw he made to Freiermuth while being hit in the mouth by defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. Pickett barely moved as Williams bore down, releasing the ball before Freiermuth was out of the break and delivered a strike:

On Sunday, Pickett did not. Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher alluded to that after the game, saying the Steelers could hurt Pickett’s confidence by putting him under this kind of pressure. If Pickett’s confidence is shaken, bad habits, such as looking at the drunk rather than the receivers, may develop. The hope is that they don’t, and that Sunday was an exception against a fierce defence. That is the hope. The reality is that Pickett and his teammates were overwhelmed by the Eagles. Fortunately, they now have the bye week to lick their wounds and recover.

AJ Brown Center

In another glaring mismatch, receiver AJ Brown spent the afternoon playing with the Steelers’ secondary. Brown finished with six catches for 156 yards and three touchdowns, most of which came on easy running routes the Steelers seemed unable to defend.

The Browns’ first touchdown came on a 39-yard strike from quarterback Jalen Hurts on Philly’s opening drive. Brown lined up in the slot, where he was covered by safety Terrell Edmunds, and ran a switch route with the outside receiver. The clip below picks up the play as Brown goes vertical around the 20-yard line. Edmunds follows him, with fellow safety Minkah Fitzpatrick following the route over the top. Both defenders appear to be in good position. But Edmunds slows down after some contact around the 10-yard line, and Fitzpatrick can’t attack the ball at the highest point. Instead, he makes a basket with his hands and tries to catch it as a receiver. This allows Brown to get under him and take the ball away:

You can see Fitzpatrick’s frustration in how he reacts after the catch. He knows he played badly here. His mistake was choosing to play the ball instead of attacking Brown. Had Fitzpatrick gotten to Brown’s hip, then punched the ball through Brown’s hands, this would have been an incompletion. But by giving Brown space, he allowed him a clean path to football. It is a no-no against a physical receiver.

Here’s another no-no. Why play press coverage if you’re not actually going to press? On Brown’s second touchdown, this was the case. Watch below as corner Ahkello Witherspoon goes up on Brown to the right of the screen. Then, at the snap, Witherspoon drops in, giving Brown a clean outside. This makes no sense, especially considering that Witherspoon’s help came from the inside in the form of Fitzpatrick, who lined up with the hash. Hurts, meanwhile, had as pretty a pocket as you could expect to throw from. With Brown’s easy release, this looked like a pat-and-go warm-up exercise for the Eagles:

This play prompted the Steelers to back Witherspoon from Brown. Philly responded by double moving him. It wasn’t even a good double move. You can see it at the top of the screen below. But Witherspoon was caught peering into the bubble screen, which Philly used to suck him. Fitzpatrick couldn’t get over in time and Brown had his third TD:

At 6’2-226 pounds with 4.4 speed, Brown has similar measurables to Chase Claypool (Claypool is actually slightly bigger and faster, at least on a stopwatch). But Brown plays more dynamically. He is more aggressive towards the football than Claypool. And he gets into his routes quicker. And the Eagles scheme him open, run picks and double moves for him, and get him the ball where he can run for the catch. These are all things Steelers’ fans wish Claypool would do, and the Steelers would do for Claypool. I saw in AJ Brown what Chase Claypool could be. It was brilliant, and also angry.

Odds and ends

Here are some other observations from ‘The Stink at The Linc’:

  • Jaylen Warren got most of his yards in garbage time. Still, he must assume a larger role in the Steelers’ offense. Warren runs with determination and looks like he could score every time he touches the football. Meanwhile, Najee Harris looks slow and uncertain, constantly tapping his feet, never seeming to find full speed. The difference when watching live is noticeable. I’m not saying Warren should be the starter. But five or six taps a game isn’t enough for this kid.
  • The secondary was brutal Sunday. Witherspoon was abused by Brown. Fitzpatrick couldn’t get over the top of the verticals in Cover-2. The Steelers got mad twice on bubble-and-go routes for touchdowns. But if there’s a silver lining, Cam Sutton looked good in coverage, again. Sutton had two more pass breakups and was glued to receivers for most of the afternoon. He is quietly turning in his best season.
  • The sloppy penalties for offenses are annoying. In the first half alone, the Steelers were called twice for illegal formations where the tackles didn’t line up at the line of scrimmage, once for an illegal man down on an RPO (about the fifth time it’s happened this season) and once for delay of game. It’s just discipline. And it’s up to Matt Canada to fix it.
  • Speaking of Canada, it was the 4th-and-goal call that got Claypool to creatively throw a touchdown pass to Derek Watt. I give Canada kudos for the gimmicks and gadgets he incorporates into the game plan every week. Now if he could only get the basics right.

Here is an example. Trailing 28-10 early in the 3rd quarter, the Steelers had 3rd and 4 from the Philadelphia 11-yard line. There were so many concepts they could have run here, but the one they chose – a fade ball to Claypool from a set – was extremely ineffective. The scheme did nothing to stress Philly’s defense. They played a basic scrimmage coverage and simply locked down receivers accordingly. Pickett ended up throwing in the back of the end zone because, really, where else could he have thrown? Nothing attacked the middle, or created conflict for the defense, or schemed a receiver open. There are only so many dead plays in this offense. It also applies to Canada.

And out…

There were a lot of Steelers jerseys in the crowd. Unofficially, TJ Watt led the way, closely followed by Minkah, Najee and KP8. Among ex-Steelers, Troy Polamalu was well represented, as was Hines Ward. I saw a Rocky Bleier jersey, a Louis Lipps jersey, plus Heath Miller, James Harrison, Rod Woodson, Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis, Antwan Randle-El, Casey Hampton (on a guy who looked as Casey Hampton) and James Farrior. I didn’t see a single Ben Roethlisberger jersey in the house.

Today’s shirt. however, went to this woman, whose photo I couldn’t resist taking on the way out:

Enjoy your bye week, Steelers fans. You deserve it.

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