(BEFORE GETTING TO THIS POST, A REMINDER TO LISTEN TO THE STEELERS ROUNDTABLE SHOW ON TRIBLIVE RADIO, SIMPLY BY CLICKING ANYWHERE ON THIS PARAGRAPH. MARK KABOLY, RALPH PAULK AND I TALK EVERYTHING BLACK-AND-GOLD FOR A FULL HOUR)
During Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s weekly session with the media Thursday, he faced 14 questions. Almost half (six) had to do with defending tight ends.
The Steelers this season have developed a reputation for failing to be able to cover tight ends effectively – but how much do they deserve it?
Yes, visions of Rob Gronkowski running free and wild through the secondary, and of the Antonio Gates/Ladarius Green duo stacking catches – and even of Travis Kelce making crucial receptions last week – are fixtures in the heads of Steelers fans. And I’m just as guilty as anyone in openly questioning if the Steelers can capably contain good receiving tight ends. With Tyler Eifert’s Bengals coming to town Sunday, that doesn’t bode well, no?
But, let’s not forget, it’s not a stretch to say that Gronkowski and Gates are two of the best receiving tight ends in NFL history (the latter definitely is; the former is too young to heap that praise upon him yet but he certainly is well on his way). They tend to pile up catches and yards and touchdowns no matter whom they’re playing.
Butler was asked if the Steelers’ struggles with tight ends is “somewhat circumstantial.”
“I think it is a little bit,” he said. “Some of it’s that and some if it is that they’re good. We’ve faced some good tight ends. When you look at who we’ve played, they’ve had some pretty good tight ends. If we concentrate too much on tight ends, then we will miss a wide receiver. They have a good wide receiver this week, so we’re going to try to do the best we can at covering those guys. We have to limit them as much as we can, enough to win anyway.”
I did some research and made a chart. It remains crude in nature despite way too much time coming up with it. It’s the Steelers’ performance against a team’s best tight end this season as compared to that individual’s average output for the season.
Then, at the bottom, are the total tight end stats allowed by the Steelers this season (and the average per their seven games) for ALL tight ends (not just the “top guy” listed above), and that compared to the NFL average for tight end production in a game.
Make sense? Anyway, for the Ravens, Crockett Gillmore missed the Steelers game because of injury, so I had to sub in backup Maxx Williams. For the Rams and Cardinals, their top two guys are so statistically interchangeable that I just combined then for the purposes of this graph.
Week Opponent Top tight end Catches/Yards/TDs Average output
1 Patriots Rob Gronkowski 5/94/3 5.7/92.3/1
2 49ers Vernon Davis 5/62/0 2.4/34/0
3 Rams Cook/Kendricks 3/19/0 5.7/45.5/0.17
4 Ravens Maxx Williams** 2/17/0 2/18/0
5 Chargers Antonio Gates 9/92/2 9/93.5/1
6 Cardinals Fells/Gresham 1/9/0 2.5/37/0.29
7 Chiefs Travis Kelce 6/63/0 4.9/69/0.29
TOTALS VS. STEELERS 45/455/6 game avgs: 6.4/65.0/0.86 NFL avgs: 4.6/49.7/0.39
A lot of variables there that make this analysis less-than-perfect (the lack of Gillmore, the fact two teams don’t have a single biggest TE threat, the 3-TD game of Gronkowski – while alarming – being more of a statistical fluke, etc.), including the relatively small sample size of less than a half a season.
But if you look at the numbers, the Steelers are allowing, what, maybe two extra catches and 15 additional yards per game to tight ends than the league average.
But will those numbers increase further this year with the dangerous Eifert?
“He having a pretty good year,” Eifert’s former college teammate, Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt, said. “I already knew he was talented by being able to practice with him. He’s going to be a tough person to stop, but I think we can do a good job.
“He’s a tight end, obviously, but he’s like a receiver at tight end – stupid athletic, and he’s got a great set of hands.”