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The Cincinnati Bengals exposed the Pittsburgh Steelers’ weak link defensively

The Pittsburgh Steelers fell 3-7 to division rival Cincinnati Bengals. While the loss wasn’t entirely unexpected, with the Bengals favored despite being on the road, it’s the way they lost that is disheartening.

The Steelers defense has one particular weakness that has become apparent to anyone who studies them every week, they can’t stop the pass.

Under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, the Steelers transitioned to a more man-heavy defense that was very different from its predecessors. Going into Week 11 with the Bengals, the Steelers were deploying men’s coverage on 40% of their defense this season, the third-highest rate in the league. This is a drastic jump from the 26% utilization rate from last season.

Under Austin, the Steelers have a pretty clear ideology, they want to pressure the quarterback with their front four and mix up the men’s covering looks whenever they can. So far this season, things haven’t exactly gone to plan, as Pittsburgh ranks 25th in EPA/game and has slipped in EPA/game in the first two months of the season.

The Steelers haven’t been able to generate pressure up front like we’re used to in this group, ranking 30th in pressure ratio so far this season. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year TJ Watt, out most of the season, certainly complicated things. They were clearly planning to have a dominating pass rush, and it didn’t materialize, which, in turn, exposed the real weakness of this Steelers’ defense – the cornerback play.

With a lackluster pass rush and more coverage responsibilities from men, the Steelers are asking for more of their corners than they’ve had in a long time. The results were not pretty, to say the least, and the difficulties were amplified in the face of high-level competition.

Here are some notable WR1-level receiving threat stat lines that Pittsburgh has seen this season:

Ja’Marr Chase: 10 catches, 129 yards, one touchdown
Amari Cooper: seven catches, 101 yards, one touchdown
Stefan Diggs: eight catches, 102 yards, one touchdown
A.J. Brown: six catches, 156 yards, three touchdowns
Tee Higgins: nine catches, 148 yards

Are you starting to sense a theme here?

To be fair, common sense tells us that elite point guards are going to find ways to impact the length of the game. However, as a defense you need to be able to minimize their effects on the game even if neutralizing them completely isn’t reasonable. When the stat lines above begin to turn normal, it becomes clear that these battles aren’t that competitive.

Cincinnati did exactly what other teams did to the Steelers all season long, they chased favorable matchups in the secondary. They lit up the scoreboard with 37 points while amassing 346 passing yards on the day.

It was a particularly difficult afternoon for cornerback Arthur Maulet. Cincinnati moved his guns and Joe Burrow looked for him time and time again. Per Pro Football Focus, Maulet was on the field for 22 man coverage snaps with Burrow targeting him on nine of them, completing six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. The Bengals moved plays, putting both Higgins and Boyd in the slot at different times to take advantage of the game.

Maulet wasn’t completely out of position on many of those reps, either. It’s just that he’s limited size profile, he loses to the point of capture where receivers can just box him in like what happened on the Trenton Irwan touchdown. Tyler Boyd dunked it on a crossfade route for a 27-yard gain that took the Bengals out of their own end zone.

Levi Wallace was able to intercept an angled pass at the line of scrimmage, but he was also taken advantage of, allowing for a few explosive passing plays on his watch.

Tee Higgins beat Wallace quite easily on a fly ball down the right sideline for a big play. Perhaps the most frustrating play of his day came in the fourth quarter when Trent Irwin took a blistering drive before laying Wallace missing and turn around for a gain of 32 yards.

Wallace had a breakout campaign in 2021 for the Buffalo Bills in their heavy zone program, but has been very hot and cold so far in his first season with the Steelers. On the plus side, he was opportunistic, making three interceptions, but he was also responsible for lapses in coverage, usually for longer wins and/or touchdowns.

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Surprisingly, Cam Sutton had arguably the best season of his career, although he’s not necessarily the best suited to a human-intensive schedule. Ahkello Witherspoon has been both injured and ineffective as he is still sidelined with a hamstring injury. The recently acquired William Jackson III is best suited for the men’s cover, but he’s also still struggling with a back injury, and it’s cloudy if or when we’ll see him deck out in black and gold. Either way, his cap of $12.75 million in unsecured money for next season means he’s likely a short stint for this year alone.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Steelers just don’t have the guys on the outside to play the style of ball they want to play. It’s not about X and Os, it’s about lack of talent. Pittsburgh doesn’t have the guys to take on opposing number one receivers, which shouldn’t be surprising given their lack of investment in the position.

Sutton is the highest paid corner on the team, but he is the 38th highest paid player in his position. With identical contracts, Wallace and Witherspoon tied for 50th.

It’s also not like they tried to add to the room via the NFL Draft. The last time the Steelers took a cornerback in the first two rounds was in 2016 when they selected Artie Burns.

Burns was the first corner the franchise had taken in the first round of this millennium, a move that didn’t pay off due to multiple factors. Many are aware of their lackluster track record when judging turns, but it’s hard to find one when you don’t even start trying.

For Austin and Tomlin, the rest of this season has to be about which of these guys best fits their approach heading into 2023. But it’s absolutely imperative that they make a significant investment, whether through free agency, trade or the NFL. Draft at the cornerback position. Simply put, it is a need that has gone unmet for too long.

When building your spring roster, it’s important to keep in mind the pieces needed to slow down your divisional opponents. If you expect to slow down the Ja’Marr Chases of the world, new General Manager Omar Khan should do everything in his power to acquire someone who can hold his own on an island against elite receivers.

The Steelers’ chances of returning to AFC North glory in 2023 or anytime in the immediate future could depend on it.

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