Tim Benz: Mike Tomlin shouldn't worry about 'trickle down' on Steelers' safeties, corners
If Steelers cornerback Joe Haden is going to follow Cincinnati Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green around the field on Sunday, that takes care of one matchup question versus the AFC North-leading Bengals.
But it creates a few more.
As the Steelers were reminded last week against Atlanta's Julio Jones, having Haden shadow the opposing team's best receiver could help their often leaky pass defense. The Falcons' star pass catcher was held without a reception until the 4th quarter of last weekend's game.
Even after an admirable 262 yards-allowed effort against the high-powered Atlanta passing attack, the Steelers are still 29th out of 32 teams in the league in that category.
Perhaps the most surprising element of that win against the Falcons wasn't so much that Haden did well against Jones, it's that the other defensive backs weren't exposed against the likes of Mohammed Sanu and Calvin Ridley, two other fine receivers for the Falcons.
The coverage even held up despite some occasionally effective blitzes from slot cornerback Mike Hilton.
This week the test against the remaining members of the secondary may not be as stiff, but it'll still be dangerous.
"It's always about the trickle-down effect when you are traveling with someone," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday. "Not only the physical challenges of the personnel matchups. But when they are moving people, who else are they moving and what else does that do?"
To that point, on occasion, the Falcons lined up Jones in the slot. That could have been for their own tactical purposes. But often, teams will do that with a good perimeter receiver just in an effort to force an exceptional cover corner away.
Usually, defenses loathe to take their best perimeter corners and put them inside because then that forces slot corners to the outside. Many defensive players who play that position are small, quick, and shifty. But they don't have the flat-out foot speed and length to hang with tall edge receivers running down the field.
As Tomlin was alluding, that's all part of the chess game.
"It's a multi-layered discussion," Tomlin continued. "It's not just about the person that you are trying to neutralize."
At times, when Jones went into the slot, Haden stayed with him. On other downs, he passed off Jones to a combination of coverages from the other backs while he remained on the outside.
That'll be an interesting subplot this week because Green has been deployed from the slot frequently in 2018. In fact, according to longtime Bengals play-by-play man Dan Hoard on our Friday podcast , Green has lined up in the slot "more often than at any point in his eight-year career." Hoard also pointed out that all five of Green's touchdowns in 2018 have come from that position.
"I don't know. You'll have to ask 'Coach T,'" Haden said when asked if he'd stay with Green in slot alignments. "Whatever he says. I guess he wanted me to get Julio. Now he wants A.J. It is what it is."
If that happens, the "trickle down" that Tomlin mentioned now goes to the safeties and fellow cornerbacks Artie Burns, Coty Sensabaugh, Brian Allen, and Hilton to cover the remaining Cincinnati eligibles.
That task may be significantly less daunting for the Steelers than what you would've thought a few weeks ago. Speedy receiver John Ross has a groin injury that may keep him sidelined. Also, tight end Tyler Eifert suffered a leg fracture two weeks ago. One of his backups, Tyler Kroft, was in a walking boot with a foot injury, too. And versatile running back Giovani Bernard is a question mark due to a knee injury.
Pitt product Tyler Boyd is the biggest pass-catching concern aside from Green. The Clairton grad actually has more catches (30) than Green (26) to lead the Bengals. If he bumps outside, look for Burns to match up with him.
"He uses his skills. He's real shifty," Burns said Wednesday. "(Quarterback Andy) Dalton does a really good job of getting the ball to him. They've got good concepts that work well for him."
On downs where Boyd stays inside, look for Hilton to draw that assignment.
"It's probably going to be Boyd more than likely," Hilton said. "But they like to use A.J. in the slot a lot. I'm going to get a lot of action from both those guys."
Given these complexities of Tomlin's "trickle down" warnings, the easier thing to do is simply have Hilton man the slot with Haden on one side of the defense and Burns or Sensabaugh on the other.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org