The offense was clicking early and often picking up chunk plays left and right and didn’t slow down until late in the game as they took their foot off of the gas. As impressive as the showing was overall, and it was as impressive as everyone made it out to be, it was just the Chargers—a team that Chiefs’ fans are accustomed to seeing fall at the hands of the Chiefs.
This week, the Chiefs have the exact opposite situation as they will travel into a more hostile environment in Pittsburgh against a foe that has had the exact opposite recent history against the Chiefs in the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Chiefs under Andy Reid have always struggled to move the ball and register points against Mike Tomlin’s Steelers defense and will most likely have to overcome those demons to stand a chance this Sunday.
I went down to the Laboratory to break down what the Steelers defense did in their Week 1 match-up with the Cleveland Browns and what the Chiefs can do to topple that barricade.
The Steelers defense
The Pittsburgh Steelers have finished up their transition away from former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s zone-blitz scheme and run the much more Mike Tomlin influenced Cover 2. The staple of the Steelers Cover 2 is the shell on the back end, especially the two safeties and not the type of coverage being played underneath of that shell. They will mix in Cover 2 Man, Cover 2 Zone, and even some Quarters coverage from the same split Safety shell to help cause confusion for the opposing quarterback. The Steelers entered the 2017 season with the plan to slow down the New England Patriots and Tom Brady so the transition to less zone blitz and scheme closer to man coverage was a must in their eyes.
This doesn’t mean it’s the only coverage the Steelers will run, unlike the Chargers last week who were set on running almost exclusively Cover 3. The Steelers will mix up their entire coverage both shells and underneath.
They will line up with a single deep safety, but as the ball is snapped, have a box safety or slot defensive back drop back into the opposite deep half of the field. Other times the Steelers will remain with the single deep safety and run Cover 3. Then, out of left field, they will load up the line of scrimmage with flashbacks to the older LeBeau-led defenses and bring heat from various angles while dropping into zone behind it.
The Steelers remain a 3-4 defense that heavily relies on their defensive line to stop the run as well as provide a pass rush.
Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Javon Hargrave are all very good two-way players allowing freedom for TJ Watt or Bud Dupree to drop into coverage, which they are competent in compared to other 3-4 OLBs. Off the line of scrimmage, the Steelers start to decline in terms of ability of their defensive players as their inside linebackers are below average and slow and the secondary behind that is extremely inconsistent.
How to attack the Steelers
Attack the deep zone holes
The past matchups between the Chiefs’ offense and Steelers’ defense has gone the same every time; The Chiefs try to establish the run and dink and dunk their way down the field while the Steelers squat on underneath routes daring to be challenged over the top. The Cover 2 shell makes that concept more appealing from the Steelers’ perspective as there should be help deep on either side but doesn’t come without big, vertical holes to attack for the offense.
Looks like a single high coverage pre-snap but right before the ball is snapped the box Safety retreats to a deep half presenting the Browns with a Cover 2. Pre-snap, the Dig-Follow is the first read but when Pitt rotates to C2, the inside dig has better leverage on the Safeties pic.twitter.com/cy07YUBzcA— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 13, 2018
The late rotation into a two-deep safety look appears to have thrown off Tyrod Taylor, resulting in him holding the ball through the throwing window. Focus on the far slot wide receiver, who runs a dig route right into the hold of the deep help coverage. The deep safety to the far side of the field has to respect that either wide receiver could go deep and therefore can’t break on the initial dig route leaving a window for the quarterback.
This particular snap is man coverage underneath this coverage shell but with two-deep, five-under zone coverage (Cover 2 Zone) the same hole in the middle of the field is going to open for deep digs, seams and post routes.
Something the Chiefs will have to contend with a bit more this week in Pitt than last week in LA is masking of coverage on the back end. Still predominantly a Cover 2 team, Pitt will mix in single high looks & play Cover 3 or rotate into their two deep coverage post-snap. pic.twitter.com/JpbnmcsnRb— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 13, 2018
Another two deep shell, but this time, we have the rest of the Steelers playing more of a match zone. Despite the second safety playing deep starting the snap near the line of scrimmage and picking up the seam route early in the route, there is no help in the middle of the field giving the wide receiver all of the leverage as he makes his inside break on the route.
Being able to punish this deep middle zone as well as corner routes as equal depth to the sideline will be important for the Chiefs. Getting the Steelers to back off the flat zones, as seen in both of these plays, by taking shots downfield will set the Chiefs offense up for the slants and quick screens that appear to be a major part of their offense this year.
Pitt, again starting with the single high look, opts to bring a LB after the QB on this play then play man behind it. Interesting to see the LB and S tasked with man on TE/RB stay back and dog; maybe due to Tyrod's mobility. Pitt left CBs 1v1 a lot, Taylor missed a lot too. pic.twitter.com/jlkUszISpy— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 13, 2018
Additionally, the Steelers’ new decision to play more man coverage has left average corners in single coverage far more often than years past. With the receiving options the Chiefs currently have, I’m not sure that the Chiefs will see as much man coverage as the Browns did, but in an instance that the Steelers are caught doing so, shots like this will have to be challenged.
Identifying blitzes and hot reads
The Steelers will still be mixing in some zone blitzes trying to overload the young quarterback in Patrick Mahomes. To back this attack off, the Chiefs will need Mahomes to be able to set the protection accordingly pre-snap and then locate the proper hot read post-snap. It’s the exact formula the Patriots have used for years to beat up the Steelers, shorter passes with plenty of room for YAC.
Pitt is showing pressure with 9/11 defenders against 13 personnel and dropping off into the zone blitz. With the play-action Cleveland's receivers get behind the dropping hook defenders quickly. Taylor does a poor job of IDing leverage and misses the inside vertical pic.twitter.com/EuQx9fiuim— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 15, 2018
Taylor was unable to identify, post-snap, which players were blitzing and which were dropping into coverage which left him looking outside for the easy one-on-one matchup rather than locking on the player running to the open space.
The protection call was spot on, even if the RB got blown up, allowing time for the throw, but the read still has to be made. If the Chiefs want to avoid being put in holes or turnover-worthy plays, they will have to be more successful when opportunities like this present themselves than Cleveland was.
Run outside the tackle box
The ILB play of the Steelers, which is more often one ILB and one bigger safety, makes the Steelers susceptible to runs that can get to the outside away from their stud defensive line. Even when a more athletic safety is inserted into the lineup, the Steelers still struggle to properly fit runs outside of their EDGE players when they lose contain. Utilizing heavier packages, 21 and 12 personnel, to force Pittsburgh into their heavy defense will put slower athletes on the field allowing horizontal runs to be successful as long as the defensive line can be controlled up front.
Going with 12 or 21 personnel and forcing Pitt to play their base/heavy defense leaves them open to runs to the outside. While solid players who are willing to do the dirty work, neither are + players in space. Chiefs should happily utilize their outside zone runs this weekend pic.twitter.com/YX41VjsOdo— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 15, 2018
Most weeks, the topic of running the ball for the Chiefs will to be more versatile and utilize more power schemes to keep teams from slanting into their outside zone runs but not this week.
The Steelers can be beaten by runs to the outside in which their less than stellar athletes at inside linebacker are asked to get into space and run. Cleveland’s best success, with their running backs, came when running on plays that they sealed the edge or got the Steeler outside linebackers pushed upfield and there was no pursuit behind them.
The bottom line
This is a huge litmus test for the Chiefs, as it’s going to signal a changing of the guard or the same old Chiefs offense.
With the Chiefs defense potentially on its heels after an up and down Week 1, the offense must carry the team more than ever. Coming out against Pittsburgh and dominating the game on that side of the ball would go a long way in easing the nervousness in Kansas City.
In order to do that, the Chiefs should fall back on their bread and butter in the run game with a heavy dose of outside-zone runs. Forcing the Steelers to play in space from larger packages could spell more disaster for a defense trying to get faster. Early in the game, the Chiefs should see a fair amount of zone blitz looks from the Steelers and will need to be able to identify them and hit the proper hot route.
As the Steelers are forced to transition to more to their Cover 2 shells, the squat heavy approach used in past years needs to be punished early and reminding that Mahomes is not Alex Smith.
Outside of raking in multiple playoff wins in a single playoff run, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers means more to the Chiefs and their fans than anything else this year. Beyond getting over the obvious hump of the Steelers, this game also represents a true playoff team for the Chiefs to challenge against with this new look roster.