Chargers out-scheme Steelers, who 'stick with what they do' with LBs on WR Keenan Allen
On the first snap of Sunday night’s game, star Los Angeles Chargers receiver Keenan Allen lined up in the slot, only to see a linebacker in Bud Dupree across from him.
Philip Rivers, of course, saw it, too. And the veteran quarterback knew exactly where he was going with the ball.
It was a 14-yard completion, the first of 14 on the game for Allen, a Pro Bowler tied for the conference lead in receptions. Allen was the target of a career-high 19 passes from Rivers — including three in the winning drive — during the 33-30 Chargers victory at Heinz Field.
And according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, a linebacker was the man closest to Allen on almost half of those 19 targets (nine) — the most a receiver has worked against a linebacker in a game since the service began tracking such metrics in 2016.
“They were always looking for a matchup. Every time I looked up, (Allen) was on me, (inside linebacker L.J.) Fort …” Dupree said. “Guys who they knew they would get good matchups from. They were throwing him the ball and targeting him right away. We could have done a better job of covering him.”
Allen had seven catches on 10 targets in the first half and seven catches on nine targets (10, if you count his 2-point conversion) in the second half. And through it all, Los Angeles offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Rivers found it too easy to keep getting Allen against a linebacker — including even at least twice on the final winning drive.
“(The Steelers) kind of stuck with (their approach),” Rivers said. “That is what this team does: They stick with what they do, and they do it very well. Keenan is a tough cover in the slot and inside.”
Rivers speculated the Steelers were content to allow Allen catches as long as he didn’t have any big plays. After an 18-yard gain to Allen on Rivers’ second pass, only one Allen catch went for longer than 14 yards, and none went for longer than 21.
Ten of Allen’s receptions were first downs — including a touchdown — and another for a 2-point conversion. Allen averaged 10.6 yards per reception.
“We got caught in a lot of zone coverages that put our linebackers on Allen,” cornerback Mike Hilton said. “They took advantage of it. It was frustrating.”
Hilton also said he wasn’t covering Allen in the slot as often as he covers most receivers in that position.
“They schemed that well,” Dupree said. “I feel like they knew how we played our leverages today, so we need to make sure that when we have a real skilled athlete (in the slot) — because I am covering (slots), Fort is covering (slots) — we have to make sure we are on top of our game and instinctive about having help and making sure we identify the matchups ahead of time while we are on the field.”
The Steelers consider Fort to be their best coverage linebacker. The defensive coaches also take pride in having their outside linebackers be able to drop in coverage because it allows them to disguise blitzes better.
But even the best linebackers in coverage only are excelling against tight ends or running backs. The worst case is matching up against a skilled, high-level wide receiver.
“(The Chargers) create matchups, and they did a good job,” Dupree said. “They do a lot of good coaching, and Philip is a great quarterback, too. And he did a great job looking at us and seeing who was on Keenan and throwing him the ball.
“We’ve got to, as players, go out and identify that so that matchup won’t be as significant.”
According to Pro Football Focus, in only one of the Chargers’ previous 11 games had Allen been targeted more than twice while a linebacker was the nearest defender.
Against the Steelers, it happened more times (nine) than over Allen’s previous nine games combined (seven).
“I thought Keenan won his one-on-ones, and he got open,” Los Angeles coach Anthony Lynn said. “He’s a big target to fill. He’s a heck of an athlete and for Keenan to be such a big man, he can really change directions quickly and we just took advantage of the matchup.”
Staff writer Tim Benz contributed. Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.