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Film Study: Scouting the Pittsburgh Steelers

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(Evan Pinkus via AP)

The Giants kick of the 2020 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night at MetLife Stadium. Here are a few things I've seen while watching the film leading up to Week 1.

*The Steelers will have only two new players in starting roles this year (guard Stefen Wisniewski and nose tackle Chris Wormley) and return head coach Mike Tomlin, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, defensive coordinator Keith Butler, and special teams coordinator Danny Smith. They are a model of continuity in an ever-changing NFL.

*It is impossible to use any of last year's data to determine overall trends for the Steelers' offense. Ben Roethlisberger was hurt in their second game and didn't play the remainder of the season. Anything backup QBs Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph did would not necessarily apply to a Roethlesberger attack.

*In 2018, Roethlesberger was extremely productive, throwing for more than 5,000 yards and 34 touchdowns, while completing 67% of his passes. He had a 2.4% interception rate, with 16 on 675 passing attempts. No one had more passing attempts than Roethlisberger, yet he was only sacked 24 times. According to Pro Football Focus, he was tied with Drew Brees with the third-fastest time to throw (2.48 seconds) in the NFL.

*The Steelers' starting offensive line returns from last year, though there is a chance they will be without Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro due to injury. According to reports, veteran addition Stefen Wisniewski would replace him. According to the team's unofficial depth chart, last year's starter at right tackle, Matt Feiler will be moving to left guard. The team announced that their starting right tackle will be Zach Banner, who was a reserve last season.

*The Steelers are not shy about throwing the ball downfield. In 2018, according to PFF, the Steelers attempted the second-most passes of 20+ yards with 100.

*Roethlisberger has a number of weapons to throw the ball to. Diontae Johnson led the Steelers with 59 receptions in 2019. He played just short of 90% of his snaps outside last year, despite standing at only 5-10 and weighing 183 pounds. Juju Smith Schuster played in only 12 games last year, spending 370 of his snaps in the slot, and lining up 205 times outside. He caught 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns. His average depth of target nearly doubles when he is lined up outside versus in the slot. James Washington is the team's primary deep threat and led the team with 735 receiving yards and 16.7 yards per catch. Second-round pick Chase Claypool has the size (6-4, 238 pounds) and speed (4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine) to be a deep threat.

*James Conner is the team's starting running back. He struggled to stay healthy last year, playing in only 10 games and rushing for 464 yards. He is a tough, physical back and runs well between the tackles at 233 pounds. He also caught 34 passes for 251 yards.

*Despite the Steelers offense finishing near the bottom of the league in yards and points per game in 2019, their defense was dominant. This is where the Steelers, a base 3-4 defense, ranked in a number of important categories:

  • 4th in points allowed – 283
  • 2nd in negative yardage forced: -484 yards
  • 1st in yards after the catch allowed: 1449
  • 7th fewest 20+ yard passes allowed: 43
  • 3rd in passing yards allowed per game: 194.6
  • 3rd in yards allowed per play: 4.72
  • 1st in sacks: 54

*Last season, the Steelers allowed only seven rushing touchdowns, which was tied with the Patriots for the fewest allowed in the NFL. Their 3.79 yards allowed per rush were the third-fewest in the league. They allowed only six rushes of 20+ yards and none of 50 or more. The Steelers do not allow opposing teams to run the ball against them, especially on early downs (3.75 yards per carry on first down – third-best in the league)

*Cameron Heyward plays with tremendous power and often marches the offensive lineman trying to block him into the backfield. His combination of athleticism and strength makes him very difficult to block. One of the reasons Watt and Bud Dupree were able to ring up so many sacks last year rushing outside was Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Jason Hargrave (now with the Eagles and replaced by Chris Wormley) collapsed the inside of the pocket, which prevented quarterbacks from stepping up. Heyward's 66 total pressures were fourth-most amongst interior defensive linemen, behind only Aaron Donald, Calais Campbell and Kenny Clark. Heyward is also a primary reason the run defense was so effective.

*3-4 defensive end Stephon Tuitt (3.5 sacks) played in only six games last year due to a torn pectoral muscle that derailed his season.

View photos of the Pittsburgh Steelers starters according to their first unofficial depth chart.

*T.J. Watt lines up exclusively on the left side of the defensive front against the opponent's right tackle. Watt has violent hands and is able to bend the edge against offensive tackles to get to the quarterback. He wins with a variety of moves and has a motor that never stops. Watt's 14.5 sacks were tied for fourth in the NFL and his 21.4% win percentage (according to Pro Football Focus) was tied for ninth with teammate Stephon Tuitt. His 87 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, was tied with Nick Bosa for fourth. Watt also had eight forced fumbles and eight passes defended last year. He is a playmaker and a potential game-wrecker.

*Bud Dupree will line up over rookie left tackle Andrew Thomas. He finished with 11.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits last season.

*Devin Bush is a slightly undersized (5-11. 234 pounds) but led the team in tackles as a rookie as their inside linebacker.

*The Steelers led the league with 38 takeaways last season, including 20 interceptions, which ranked second. Minkah Fitzpatrick arrived after two games last year in a trade with the Dolphins and had five interceptions. Joe Haden added five interceptions and led the team with 12 forced incompletions, according to PFF. Fellow starting cornerback Steven Nelson had 11.

*The Steelers' pass defense ranked fourth in the NFL, allowing 6.06 yards per play. They allowed the third-fewest yards per game (194.6) and were only one of four teams to hold opponents under 200 passing yards per contest.

*According to PFF, Pittsburgh generated 372 total quarterback pressures, which was the third in the NFL. Their 54 sacks led the NFL. They also paced the NFL in the percentage of passing snaps they pressured the quarterback (45.1%) and sacked the quarterback (8.6%). They achieved those impressive marks by blitzing 38% of the time, which was the fifth-highest mark in the NFL. They ran stunts or twists 18.6% of the time, which is just above the league average.

*According to PFF, the Steelers played Cover 3 37.8% of the time, which was the sixth-most frequent amount in the NFL. They are primarily a zone team, though they still played some form of Cover 1 (man-to-man with one safety deep) just over a quarter of the time.

View photos of the history between the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers.

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