After almost a year of struggles, Steelers’ secondary now limiting big plays
Chunk plays, splash plays, explosive plays.
Call them whatever you want, opponents were splashing, chunking and exploding their way through the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary for 11 months.
But since the calendar flipped to October 2018, so did the Steelers’ defense in flipping a switch that stopped the splashes, extinguished the explosions and choked out the chunks.
“That’s what we focus on,” slot cornerback Mike Hilton said of opponents’ big passing plays. “We feel like if they are gonna beat us they are going to have to have 10- or 11-play drives, not four-play, 80-yard drives. We know if we keep the top on it, it will be hard for an offense to drive the field on us.”
During the Steelers’ current three-game winning streak, it’s been the winning formula defensively. Whereas over their previous 13 regular-season games dating back to Week 8 of last season the Steelers - remarkably - had given up at least one passing play of at least 39 yards in all but one of them, over the past three games they have allowed just one pass that gained more than 24 yards.
It’s no coincidence that not only did the Steelers win all three games (against the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 7, the Cincinnati Bengals a week later and the Cleveland Browns on Sunday), they allowed an average of only 18.7 points.
In those prior 13 regular-season games in which they’d allowed 39 plays of at least 25 yards (an average of three per game), the Steelers’ defense submitted an average of 23.7 points.
During Sunday’s 33-18 win against Cleveland, the Browns had no passing plays of more than 21 yards and just three passes that netted more than 8 yards until Baker Mayfield hit on a few during a “garbage time” drive when the game was well decided in the final 2 minutes.
A cynic would note that the Browns aren’t exactly the most explosive big-play offense. But remember, this is a Steelers secondary that has been torched by the likes of now-backups Jacoby Brissett, Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer and Tyrod Taylor - each of whom completed at least two passes of 38 yards or more in a game against the Steelers over the past 12 months.
Bottom line: there’s been improvement. But why?
“Just trying to play ‘top down,’” veteran cornerback Joe Haden said. ”...Just staying deep, staying in your thirds and getting pressure on the quarterback so he doesn’t really (have a chance to) let those deep routes develop as much. Just getting (a quarterback) off his spot, and we have been just working as a complete defense.”