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Cleveland’s Man Coverage Abilities Could Be Problematic For Steelers’ Passing Attack

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If you thought the Pittsburgh Steelers were out of the woods after taking on the San Francisco 49ers’ star-studded defense, think again. 

Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz did his best Bill Yoast impression last Sunday, blitzing often against the Cincinnati Bengals. According to The Athletic, the team had the third-highest blitz rate across the league, equating to a​​ 38.2 percent pressure rate and headaches for Joe Burrow. 

For a quarterback as poised and accurate as Burrow with arguably the best collection of offensive weapons in the NFL, how were the Bengals unable to capitalize on the aggressive play style? The answer: man coverage. 

The Browns laid out one of the most aggressive defensive strategies in Week One from a defensive perspective. After years of investment into the defensive backfield, Schwartz unleashed the unit, lining them up in man coverage 50% of the time, according to Cleveland.com. That’s the most man coverage the Browns have played in a game since Week 12 of 2018. 

Moreover, the team was good at it. The cornerback duo of Denzel Ward and Martin Emerson held their matchups to a combined five receptions on 14 attempts. Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase had just five catches for 39 yards, while his running mate Tee Higgins didn’t record a catch at all. 

After all of that, the question becomes, what does this mean for the Steelers? Well, nothing good. The team will head into Monday’s game without wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who sustained a significant hamstring injury against the 49ers. 

Outside of losing the team’s top pass catcher, this is significant because Johnson is statistically one of the best receivers against man coverage in the NFL. 

PFF’s Arjun Menon tracked the best and worst receivers in the NFL against man-to-man coverage and Johnson was at the top. He ranked sixth among his peers with an elite 47.85% open rate. Known as a route-running savant, this is unsurprising for the 27-year-old, so missing him will be a massive blow for the team, especially when accounting for George Pickens’ struggles against man. 

In the same tracking data, the second-year pro out of Georgia placed 86th out of 89 for open rate when facing man with a 24.86% open rate. Less than ideal numbers when heading into the Monday night. For him to be successful, the Steelers need to hope Joe Haden’s comments on 50-50 throws, being 90-10 for Pickens are true. 

But let’s not leave the article on a sour note because there is good to come from this. PFF tracked the top quarterbacks last season when facing man coverage and Kenny Pickett ranked near the top with a passing grade of 80.9. That was good for eighth best in the league during his rookie campaign. Additionally, he graded out as the third best under pressure (73.2) and 9th-best against the blitz (77.3), two things he should expect to see against the Browns. 

For Pittsburgh to take down Cleveland, it will need Pickett to be just as effective in the matchup.



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