Note: This is a guest post by Curtis Allen and the latest piece in a weekly series. Curtis looks at the Seahawks and their opponents and discusses key factors…
The Seahawks are in a situation the team has dreaded for years – without their star quarterback and without the ability to really cover his absence for at least three or four games.
Perhaps losing your best player will add a degree of focus the team and coaching staff has been lacking.
Hit and miss success areas this year like the use of the running backs, the pass rush and field goal attempts will have to be more hit than miss to have a chance of securing a win.
Given that such a prominent player will be missing from this game, there will be a strong pull to reel the game plan back on both offense and defense and play conservatively since they do not have an electric player who can generate yards and points quickly.
In some measure that is true. In many other ways, there is ample evidence that an aggressive game plan is the surer path to success this week.
They will actually need to play both conservatively and aggressively against the Steelers.
In what areas? We will outline them for this week’s Watch Points.
Conservative: Mind the margin
With your best and most valuable player unavailable, the margin for victory just got slimmer. The Seahawks will need to play like they understand this and take advantage of Pittsburgh’s mistakes while scrupulously avoiding stupid mistakes of their own that could add up to cost them the game.
It is no secret that Ben Roethlisberger’s accuracy and arm strength are not what they once were. This season he has given opponents at least three or four chances at interceptions per game. The defense must capitalize and give the offense a short field to work with. Or even better, take an interception to the house.
Mental errors must be limited.
One of the biggest of course is turnovers.
Chris Carson fumbled twice in the 2019 Week Two game against these very Steelers and it very nearly cost them the game.
Have a look at the highlight reel at 1:53 and 11:20:
The first one is a brilliant play by T.J. Watt. He led the league that year with an incredible eight forced fumbles. He has the quickness to get around the edge, close on the runner and punch the ball out so fast you hardly even know what has happened.
The second is Mike Hilton easily beating Nick Vannett and disrupting the handoff.
They must protect the football in order to keep pace in this game.
Another critical area is in the kicking game. Jason Myers must correct whatever problem he has had missing kicks this year.
However, even seemingly insignificant mistakes can influence the outcome of the game with Russell Wilson not there to cover them up.
Mistakes like Deejay Dallas celebrating late in the half against the Rams and burning time.
And mistakes like the one Javon Williams made against the Steelers Sunday.
Notice the clip at 3:48:
The scene — Denver is down 10-3 in the second quarter and has the ball at midfield. Williams is given the ball and breaks free for a huge run and is dragged down at the 2-yard line (an extra half step gets him into the end zone). He gets up and spikes the ball in celebration. He is flagged for a delay of game to push them back to the 7-yard line.
The Steelers defense stiffens and with a big sack of Teddy Bridgewater holds the Broncos to a field goal. The Broncos left four points on the field and 10-6 was the closest they were to competing with the Steelers on Sunday.
Is it a ticky-tack penalty? Sure. Is it avoidable with more focus? Absolutely. It cost the Broncos in the end.
I think it goes without saying — the whole team has been put on notice that their failsafe option will not be on the field to bail them out for their mistakes. Clean football is not optional. Victory depends on it.
Aggressive: Put pressure on Ben Roethliberger
Roethilsberger’s stock in trade as a quarterback has been to withstand heavy pass rush and blitzes and make the defense pay. In his prime he was as good as anyone in extending the play. His strength is not speed and elusiveness so much as it is size and power. He is just as big as the guys trying to tackle him are at times and he can power through their tackles and find open receivers long after the play should have been over.
Even as recent as last year, his numbers were actually better when blitzed by the defense than when not:
-His quarterback rating was 18% better
-His rate of first downs was 32% better
-His touchdown rate – get this – was 70% better
All when blitzed. Between a solid offensive line, some dangerous wide receivers and Ben’s ability to avoid sacks, blitzing the Steeler offense was a fool’s errand in the past.
It no longer is.
Ben Roethlisberger’s numbers through five games this year when blitzed are awful:
-A 52.8% completion rate
-A 56.6 quarterback rating
-Zero touchdowns and one interception
-His sack rate nearly doubles
He is reaching that physical state where he is fine when he has a clean pocket but when he is called on to use his feet and throw off-balance, he is far less effective than he used to be.
Denver last week blitzed nine times and got only four pressures. Ben was able to stay mostly upright and burn the defense for two big pass plays – one 50 yard and 59 yard pass.
Aside from those two passes his stat line was 13 completions in 23 passes for 144 yards Sunday. He was propped up by those two passes and a great running performance by Najee Harris.
He was sacked once and it was very costly. He was stripped of the ball, Denver recovered and drove for a field goal.
The Seahawk defensive backfield has yet to instil confidence that they can defend deep passes and the pass rush depth is not providing four-on-five wins. Blitzing at key times can have a profound impact on this game.
Alton Robinson and Darrell Taylor are the teams’ highest graded edge rushers on PFF but are currently #6 and 7 on the defensive line in snaps so far this season.
Time to unleash them on obvious passing downs.
What are the Seahawks doing with Jamal Adams? Time to blitz him in this game.
Even just pressure can help. For instance, the Seahawks would do well to get Roethlisberger moving to his left.
Take a look at his passing chart from last year. Throws to his left past the sticks? A 130.2 passer rating. To be avoided at all costs, he was red-hot throwing to that part of the field.
How is he doing in that sector in 2021 though?
He is 9/30 with two interceptions throwing to that zone of the field.
The Steelers regularly run Dionte Johnson over there and he and Ben just have not formed a connection on that side. He is much better on the right side of the offense. The problem is, so is Chase Claypool. Juju Smith-Shuster is hurt, so somebody will have to line up over there to keep balance.
Overload the right side of the offense. Send blitzers from there.
Even if all you do is get Ben to move his feet and get out of the pocket, your odds of success greatly increase.
Conservative: Keep Najee Harris from taking pressure off the offense
Harris finally broke through and had a 100-yard game on the ground Sunday against Denver. That kept the team from having to rely on their aging quarterback to constantly make plays to keep the offense moving.
Trivia: the Steelers have won 18 games in a row when their running back gets 100 yards.
Saying it is important that the defense keep a lid on Harris is an understatement. They have finally found a complementary back that can provide regular chunks of yards.
Stopping him starts in the middle with Al Woods, Bryan Mone and Poona Ford. Yet the edges are where Harris is dangerous. Players like Kerry Hyder and Carlos Dunlap must keep containment. If the Steelers successfully motion tight ends or the tackles can move the edges, Harris will have room to run and he rarely fails to take advantage.
Watch him glide by Kyle Fuller like he is standing still and gain an extra six yards (@ 7:23):
They cannot allow too many plays like that to happen.
If the Seahawks have to go back to their huge Bear Front package and stack another defender on the edge on running downs, so be it. Here comes 1000lbs of beef between Woods, Ford and Mone with bookends on each side providing toughness on the edges.
And the linebackers in the run game?
Well, if you have read any of the previous watch points for this year, this is going to sound like a broken record.
The linebackers and Jamal Adams have been a massive investment in salary and draft capital. It is time for it to pay off by matching speed and vision with Harris. This may be where the game is won or lost.
How can we push for the defensive line to be conservative in the run game and yet aggressive in the passing game?
It is possible if the coaches and players pick their spots properly.
Taking one of these two elements away will dramatically affect the Steeler’s rhythm and ability to function properly.
They must find a way to balance their defense in this manner.
Aggressive: Do not be afraid to take shots on offense
Everybody knows the Seahawks are downgraded at quarterback with Geno Smith. Everybody is also giving Geno lip service like they are taking him seriously as a real quarterback who can marshal this team to a win.
But even the most levelheaded coaches and players are breathing a little sigh of relief that they are not facing Russell Wilson Sunday.
Make them pay for that, Geno.
The Seahawks still have Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, Gerald Everett and Will Dissly to play with. The Steelers are vulnerable at cornerback.
They should craft an early passing game that is crisp and short. Take the snap, take two steps, and throw. Do not give the fierce pass rush time to chase you down and cause a catastrophe.
Easier said than done? Absolutely. It has been done by this team though.
The Seahawks already have a basic framework for how they can do it and have success: The Week Two game in 2019:
Look at the quick throws at 0:14, 3:27 and 3:36. Crisp, decisive, moving of the ball and avoiding the pass rush.
More of the same: 4:16 to Will Dissly for a TD and three in a row starting at 7:08.
It is likely the defense respected Russell Wilson’s deep ball ability and therefore gave him some room to operate. Geno Smith might have to work his way into that underneath room by throwing receivers open in the early going.
That could set up a chess match later in the game if they play it correctly. Wait until the time is right and take a deep shot. Geno has the arm. Lockett and Metcalf know how to get open enough to make it an easy throw.
There is potential there for Geno to stun the Steelers with some key throws.
Potential and precedent. The Steelers defense has given up twenty-one explosive pass plays so far this season. Four of those were thrown by Teddy Bridgewater – who, with all due respect – is no one’s go-to example of an explosive passer.
There is also a weapon Geno can use aggressively to provide yards that Russell may not have been quite as strong in using: Colby Parkinson.
In the mock game in preseason this year, Geno and Colby were on the “B” offense against the “A” defense. They had fantastic chemistry together and moved the ball well. Keep in mind that was a lighter game without serious tackling. But Geno knew where Parkinson would be, he threw in his direction even when he was not wide open and Parkinson made several good catches — even adjusting to the throw if it was not right on the mark.
That is occasionally something that head coaches will do, bring in a bench player when a backup quarterback is in, in order to provide some comfort and chemistry. They have practiced together a lot and there is a natural connection that may not exist as strongly with Will Dissly or Gerald Everett.
Quick pass plays. Two steps and throw.
Let the defense tighten a bit and then burn them deep.
Here is another area the Seahawks can have success when aggressive on offense — fourth downs.
The Broncos on Sunday were three for four against the Steelers defense on fourth downs. The fourth one they didn’t convert? A heave at the end of the game.
All three they converted were passes. The Broncos found a weakness and exploited it for gains.
Pittsburgh has stopped only 4/9 fourth down attempts this year.
With a full arsenal of offensive weapons and a bit of boldness to keep the ball out of the opposing offense’s hands, there is an opportunity to make some gains.
Still another way to be aggressive on offense? I saved the best one for last:
Run the ball right at T.J. Watt.
That’s right. Go right at the best defensive player in the NFL.
Hear me out.
There are no weaknesses in Watt’s game. He is a relentless run defender, one of the best pass rushers in the game, and he forces fumbles. There is no arguing why the Steelers gave him a huge contract this year.
What is his best weapon? His speed off the edge.
How did he demonstrate it in that 2019 game? Let’s look at the tape:
Watch 0:25 where Watt lines up and makes great time to Russell Wilson while Germain Ifedi does…well, I don’t know what he is doing there.
On that Carson strip, it is his speed that allows him to get a good angle on Carson and wind up that fist to punch the ball out.
How do you nullify the speed of T.J. Watt? Run right at him. TV color commentators love to point this out. If you run right at him, he has nowhere to go and doesn’t get wound up. As well, he can often get up field so quickly, he leaves the edge open. Carefully crafted plays can exploit this area at times.
Watch how the Seahawks employed this tactic in 2019.
Cue the tape to 0:44. The Seahawks bring Duane Brown all the way from the left tackle spot to block Watt, and Carson springs free. (Also, I don’t care if your last name is Watt, the sight of that massive a man bearing down on you with three full steps of momentum has got to be scary.)
Now let’s look at 1:44. Here we see Watt rushing on George Fant and Fant handles him and traffics him out of the hole and there is a very nice gain there.
There are several advantages to running to Watt’s quadrant of the field.
-It gives Watt a half-second pause in pass rushing situations
-It gives Geno Smith some confidence that he will not have to carry the team on every single play
-If done correctly, there may be gaps that can be exploited for big gains
There is also a surprise factor. Whenever I watch highlights of Steelers defense, it feels like Watt’s defensive mates are so used to him making extraordinary plays, when he is out of position there appears to almost be an extra half-second of surprise for the linebackers and safeties to react and tackle the ball carrier.
The Seahawks will need to surprise the Steelers in several ways in order to win on Sunday.
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