Steelers better equipped to deal with Chargers’ Keenan Allen
With the Los Angeles Chargers looming Sunday , nobody in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room is happier with the acquisition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick than Bud Dupree.
Dupree was one of several linebackers — inside and outside — tasked with covering Keenan Allen last year when the Chargers wide receiver sparked a comeback from a 16-point deficit that sent the Steelers to a 33-30 defeat at Heinz Field.
Which is why Dupree let out a nervous laugh earlier this week when he was asked about the challenge awaiting the Steelers when they face Allen again Sunday night at Digital Health Sports Park. It was the kind of laugh a person makes when he wants to make light of his misfortune but isn’t sure if it’s too soon.
“Ah, yeah,” Dupree said, smiling. “Ah, shoot, long story short, we were (covering) Keenan Allen last year, but now we’ve got Minkah to (cover) Keenan. We don’t have to be on him because he made us look bad at the linebacker position.”
Did he ever.
All Allen did was catch 14 passes for 148 yards, a touchdown and a 2-point conversion. His 10-yard touchdown reception from Philip Rivers late in the third quarter began a run of 26 points scored by the Chargers in the final 16 minutes, 43 seconds.
Ten of Allen’s receptions went for a first down or touchdown.
The Steelers entered that game without their two top players at the dime linebacker position, Morgan Burnett and Cameron Sutton, because of injuries. That left linebackers such as Dupree, Vince Williams, Jon Bostic and L.J. Fort tasked with lining up across from Allen.
Allen was targeted 19 times, with a linebacker providing coverage on nine occasions. It was the most snaps a wide receiver had been targeted against a linebacker since 2016 when the statistic was first recorded.
Through five weeks this year, Allen has caught 38 passes for 470 yards, putting him on track for career-high 1,504 yards and a third consecutive 1,100-yard season. He is one of only three players this year with at least 35 catches and 450 yards.
“He’s a great athlete, and he can run, too,” Dupree said. “He’s in the conversation for having the best routes in the league.”
And having a linebacker trying to keep pace with Allen was a proposition the Chargers were more than happy to exploit.
“Finding mismatches is the name of the game now,” slot corner Mike Hilton said. “They did that, exploited it the whole night and were successful.”
Burnett, Bostic and Fort are no longer with the Steelers, who upgraded their speed at inside linebacker by drafting Devin Bush in the first round and signing Mark Barron in free agency. Barron, though, won’t play because of a hamstring injury.
“I’m 265 (pounds), so anytime I’m on top of him, it’s kind of a problem and same with Vince and Devin,” Dupree said. “They are way smaller than me, but they are still linebackers for a reason. We probably won’t even be in that situation.”
Which is where Fitzpatrick enters the equation. The Steelers sent a 2020 first-round draft pick to Miami to acquire Fitzpatrick, whose blend of speed, tackling and versatility has helped stabilize the Steelers defense.
“We know how they are going to try to attack us,” strong safety Terrell Edmunds said. “We know where we need to place people, and we have to go from there.”
The Steelers also unveiled a third safety in their dime package last Sunday against Baltimore with first-year player Kameron Kelly playing 10 snaps on passing downs. A healthy Sutton is another option the Steelers can use to stop Allen that they didn’t have last season.
“We’ve got a lot more guys who can run and cover a lot better,” Hilton said. “We just feel more comfortable and confident in the guys we’ve got. It’s shown in how we’re playing these last few games. We’re faster, and we’re getting the ball.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .