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Opponent scout: Steelers’ pass rush is led by NFL’s sack leader

Pittsburgh’s defense has carried the team — and it starts with their Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs' upcoming opponent by examining its strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect its matchup with Kansas City.


As the Chiefs deal with the COVID outbreak they are suffering through, the Pittsburgh Steelers need every win they can get as they fight for a playoff spot in the muddled AFC playoff race.

Overview

The Steelers are 7-6-1, coming off a stretch with wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans — with a road loss to the Minnesota Vikings sandwiched in between.

Pittsburgh averages 20.8 points per game, the NFL's 21st-ranked rate. They rank in the same spot for total yards. They are average on third down and in the red zone, ranking 15th and 13th in conversion rates in those situations, respectively. The Steelers struggle to have an effective ground game, ranking 30th in rushing yards per carry. In offensive DVOA, Pittsburgh ranks 22nd; 28th in rushing DVOA.

Defensively, the Steelers allow 23.9 points per game — the league's 11th-highest mark; for total yards allowed, the mark is sixth-highest. They allow the league's highest rushing yards per carry: 4.9 yards; they've allowed over 200 rushing yards in each of their last two games. Against the pass, Pittsburgh has recorded the NFL's second-most team sacks. The Steelers have the 20th-ranked defensive DVOA, ranking 30th in rushing DVOA.

Offense

This is not the old-school Steelers offense founded on a dominant run game — nor is it the high-powered passing unit we saw within the last decade.

This version of Pittsburgh's offense has playmakers— but the limited abilities of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (and the offensive line) have made it hard to get the ball to those talented players when they are in positions to succeed.

At 2.39 seconds from snap to throw, Roethlisberger has the lowest average time of any starting quarterback this season — and that is not by accident: the Pittsburgh offense relies on the quick-pass game, heavily utilizing quick routes like hitches, slants, and gos — while also leaning on a variety of wide-receiver screens.

On these plays, the ball is quickly in and out of the quarterback's hands — primarily to wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, but also running back Najee Harris. He is often aligned as a wideout, lining up out there for an average of six plays a game this season.

But this quick game can't be used all the time; in longer conversion situations, Roethlisberger has to hold onto the ball longer. That hasn't gone well most of the time this season, especially in third-down scenarios, where defenses can get aggressive against the older, less-mobile version of Roethlisberger.

Along with that immobility, Pittsburgh's offensive line is inexperienced in pass protection, allowing veteran coaches (like the Vikings' Mike Zimmer) to expose that weakness with blitzes. It can't be easy for the rookie Harris to get it right all the time, either.

On the ground, Harris' individual talent can help him break off a big run — but it's happened only rarely. On the season, he averages 3.6 yards per carry; he has 120 more snaps than any other running back, so you can expect to see him — and only him — taking the carries.

Defense

For better or for worse, everything with the Pittsburgh defense starts up front.

The Steelers have the second-most sacks in the league because they have a pair of pass rushers who both rank in the top 25 for quarterback pressures this year: edge rusher T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward.

Watt — the NFL's sack leader with 17.5 — primarily comes from the left side of the defense, playing there on 97% of his defensive-line snaps. Heyward will typically align as a 3-tech to rush the passer, blowing up guards for seven sacks this year. Edge rusher Alex Highsmith has also been effective; he was one of the reasons the Steelers felt like they could trade Melvin Ingram to the Chiefs.

When he's not on the line of scrimmage, Pittsburgh will use Watt in various ways off the ball — either blitzing from an interior gap or dropping into a short coverage while another defender blitzes. The creativity has led to the team's overall sack rate being so high.

But the same front that terrorizes quarterbacks has been absolutely shredded on the ground this season — but especially in recent weeks. There have been four times the Steelers have allowed at least 198 yards in the last six games.

Key defensive linemen Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt are currently on injured reserve, leaving the middle of their defense vulnerable. Heyward is still a disruptive force — but more so as a pass rusher.

At the second level, Pittsburgh's rotation of linebackers gets picked on in the running game. Third-year linebacker (and former first-round pick) Devin Bush has paired with Joe Schobert to take 87.3% of this year's linebacker snaps — but he is currently on the Reserve/COVID list.

As a unit, they just struggle to get off blocks and make more contact on tackles; there is a lot of arm-tackling against the run. Their problems look very similar to the Chiefs' issues during the season's first few weeks. Opposing offenses have also been spreading them out, taking advantage of the severely light boxes with which Pittsburgh will counter.

The bottom line

When the Chiefs are on defense, their defensive line should win their matchups with the Steelers' offensive line, leaving off-ball defenders to do the rest. Sound tackling will be very important against Pittsburgh, which likes to get the ball to their playmakers in space.

With the ball, Kansas City should be hyper-aware of Watt. With starting right tackle Lucas Niang currently on the Reserve/COVID list, that could be a significant mismatch on that edge — especially if the potential absences of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce force quarterback Patrick Mahomes to hold the ball longer.