Four Downs: Opponents attacking Steelers in the slot; Steelers excelling in pass protection
1. Penny slots
When it comes to attacking the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary, opponents are playing the slot machine.
According to Pro Football Focus, through five weeks of the season the Steelers have allowed the most receiving yards to slot receivers (716), the most targeted passes to slot receivers (74), the most catches by slot receivers (54), the most first downs gained by slot receivers (32) and the second-most touchdowns scored by slot receivers (five).
Slot receivers are defined as any player who lines up as an eligible receiver on the inside. The Steelers have traditionally had trouble with tight ends, though the Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen tortured them last season as a “wide” receiver running out of the slot.
According to analysis by PFF, a handful of Steelers are having issues in coverage in the slot. Safety Terrell Edmunds is one of only two players in the NFL who have played at least 31 snaps in slot coverage that is allowing a perfect passer rating when balls are thrown to his man: opponents have completed 7 of 8 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown among his 40 snaps in the slot. When Mark Barron is assigned to slot coverage, one out of every 4.3 snaps is a pass thrown to his man; that’s the third-worst rate in the NFL (minimum 31 plays), meaning opposing quarterbacks are recognizing Barron in coverage and looking to exploit it.
Of the 72 NFL players PFF reports have had at least 31 snaps of covering opposing slot receivers, Edmunds (third worst, 2.53), Barron (seventh worst, 2.37) and Mike Hilton (tied for 111th-worst, 1.76) are all among the worst 12 in yards allowed per route covered.
The positives, regarding the Steelers? Cameron Sutton rates above average — and rookie linebacker Devin Bush leads the NFL in fewest yards allowed per snap in slot coverage at 0.10.
— SteelVideos (@SteelBlitzburgh) September 16, 2019
2. Pass-pro pros
After the offseason departure of position coach Mike Munchak, the Steelers offensive line has taken its share of criticism (particularly during September). But, especially when it comes to pass protection, the unit has been arguably the NFL’s best. No team has allowed fewer sacks (1.0 per game). In footballoutsiders.com’s “adjusted sack rate” metric (which accounts for quality of opportunity for sacks), the Steelers lead the NFL at 2.7%. In PFF’s individual ratings, Matt Feiler is the NFL’s second-best right tackle and David DeCastro the second-best right guard.
But how is this for irony? Or is it bad luck? Though only two teams’ quarterbacks have been “hit” (as defined by PFF) fewer than the Steelers QBs (four), the Steelers have lost two quarterbacks because of injury in five games this season.
— PFF (@PFF) October 8, 2019
The season is only five weeks old, and already the Steelers have used three quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges) and had four players complete passes (add Jaylen Samuels). The most recent time before this season the Steelers had four players complete a pass was 2011 — quarterbacks Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and punter Daniel Sepulveda.
Last year (Roethlisberger, QB Josh Dobbs, receiver Antonio Brown and kicker Chris Boswell) and during the 2015 season (Roethlisberger, Landry Jones, Mike Vick and Brown), the Steelers had four players attempt passes.
In 2010, five players completed passes, including four QBs – three of whom started games. Devlin Hodges could become the third starter at quarterback for the Steelers this season, something that happened most recently in 2015. The Steelers have never used four starting quarterbacks in one season.
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) August 21, 2019
4. Flag free
NFLpenalties.com reports only five teams have been penalized fewer times than the Steelers, and two of those teams have played one fewer game. Just three teams have had fewer offensive penalties assessed than the Steelers (14) and just six teams have had fewer special-teams penalties (four).
Last season, no team had more special-teams flags thrown on them than the Steelers (27).
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .