Steelers brace for Giants' no-huddle attack
The offenses seem strikingly similar. The Steelers and New York Giants rely on two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks to move the ball down the field while avoiding sacks and throwing primarily to an elite wide receiver.
One difference: The Giants operate out of the no-huddle set probably more than any other team in the NFL.
That is the challenge facing the Steelers defense as it prepares to confront Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr. and the Giants' hurry-up scheme Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
Manning's use of the no-huddle has helped the Giants (8-3) win six games in a row and has confounded defenses trying to switch from standard formations to subpackages.
It's an area the Steelers have emphasized this week in practice.
“They don't substitute, so you can't substitute,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said Thursday. “The umpire is not going to stand there and hold the ball for us to get other people in there. We have to be selective.”
That means the Steelers could keep their nickel defense, with nose tackle Javon Hargrave moving to defensive end and William Gay filling the role of slot safety, on the field more than usual. It's a formation the Steelers already use extensively on second and third downs.
Manning runs the no-huddle not as a means to reel off plays at pinball-machine speed, but to limit defensive substitution and to take advantage of mismatches. It also has kept him clean as evidenced by his 13 sacks in 11 games.
“It really keeps pressure on the defense,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “They make you operate and be prepared to operate at an uncomfortable pace. … They make you be prepared to operate. Just because they are at the line doesn't necessarily mean that they snap the ball. But you better be prepared for them to.
“That is an asset to them.”
The no-huddle success has masked the Giants' inability to run the ball. Rashard Jennings has a team-high 395 yards in 11 games, and the Giants rank 31st in rushing.
The Giants also don't pile up points despite working at a hurried pace. They haven't topped 30 points this season and their average of 21 ranks 21st.
But what the Giants do have is Beckham, the equivalent to the Steelers' Antonio Brown. Beckham leads the Giants with 65 catches for 915 yards and eight touchdowns. He is on pace for his third consecutive season of 90 catches and 1,300 yards despite facing constant double-teaming.
“He's grown in that we're moving him around, putting him in different spots. He's had to learn different routes, different concepts,” Manning said. “We try not to line him up in the same spot every time where people know where he's going to be and have a game plan for him.”
In other words, the Giants are utilizing Beckham the same way the Steelers deploy Brown because of the extra attention he receives from defenses.
“As long as we're good covering AB in practice, I think we'll be ready for any matchup we have,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “And I think we've prepared well during the course of the season.”
Cockrell drew the assignment of shadowing A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall this season. Recently, the Steelers haven't been afraid to have rookie corner Artie Burns track the other team's top receiver.
Gay and safeties Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell also could get involved in the coverage.
“He's the type of receiver that demands that type of respect,” Mitchell said.
Since having an eight-catch, 222-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Baltimore Ravens, Beckham has gone five games without eclipsing 100 yards. In three of those games, he was held below 50. Yet, the Giants won all five times.
“That's why you can't put all your attention on Beckham,” Burns said.
Manning has taken advantage of his other receivers. Rookie Sterling Shephard has 44 catches for 476 yards and five touchdowns. Veteran Victor Cruz, back after missing almost two seasons because of injury, has 27 catches for 462 yards and a touchdown.
Manning has thrown 15 of his 20 touchdown passes during the six-game winning streak.
“A lot of times he understands what the defense is in, and he can make good decisions, give it to the guys he knows are going to make plays,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “He's not going to put himself in a bad position. If he sees (defenses) are going to rush or blitz, he changes the call. He knows a lot of things that helps his offense get in the right position.”