No passing fancy

They tried press coverage and man-to-man, five-defensive backs "nickel" packages and the six-defensive backs "dime." They even blitzed in a determined attempt to shut down the Bengals' passing game from Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow's end of the equation.

None of it worked often enough or well enough.

"It was a little bit of everything," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin acknowledged after practice today. "It was zones, it was mans, it was doubles, you name it, and it didn't happen for us.

"We gotta do a better job coaching 'em to get 'em there to make the plays and then when they get there they gotta make 'em."

Burrow connected with wide receiver Tee Higgins nine times on 13 targets last Sunday at Acrisure Stadium. Higgins produced 148 receiving yards on those nine receptions.

For the Steelers, the Bengals' 37-30 victory became, among other things, the continuation of a frustrating trend.

Higgins' 100-yard day was the seventh such effort against the Steelers in 10 games.

It started with the Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase, who amassed 10 catches and 129 receiving yards in the Steelers' 23-20 overtime win in the regular-season opener on Sept. 11 in Cincinnati.

The final game prior to the Steelers' bye, a 35-13 loss on Oct. 30 in Philadelphia, saw the Eagles' A.J. Brown collect six catches for 156 yards and three touchdowns.

In between, the Bills' Gabe Davis exploded for 171 yards on three receptions, including touchdown catches of 98 and 62 yards, in a 38-3 loss on Oct. 9 in Buffalo (Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs added 102 receiving yards and a touchdown on eight grabs).

Overall ,the Steelers' pass defense is allowing an NFL-worst average of 272.1 passing yards per game.

"There's been a lot of times we've been in position to make the plays and we're not making the plays," Austin said. "So a lot of balls that a lot of times go down as 50-50 balls, we're losing the majority of those. We have to get better at winning them. When we get in position to win those 50-50 balls we have to win them. We can't lose as many as we're losing, and that's part of the reason we're giving up so many plus-20 passes all year.

"If we want to give ourselves an opportunity to win we have to get those big plays off our tape."

Burrow connected on seven passes that gained at least 21 yards against the Steelers.

Higgins did all of his damage in the second and third quarters (he wasn't targeted in the first or fourth).

The onslaught began on third-and-4 from the Bengals' 14-yard line. Higgins lined up as the closest eligible to the line of scrimmage in a three receivers-left formation and ran away from strong safety Terrell Edmunds on a shallow cross that gained 24 yards.

On first-and-10 from the Bengals' 38, Higgins worked out of a slot-left position and caught a 6-yard out in front of cornerback Arthur Maulet.

On second-and-4 from the Cincinnati 44, Higgins was positioned wide-left prior to making a 13-yard grab along the sideline, where he was tackled by cornerback Cam Sutton.

Three successive plays.

Three different deployments for Higgins against three different primary defenders and 43 yards gained.

And so it went.

"It's not part of the problem that he's all over the place, we anticipated that," Austin said. "With Ja'Marr out they moved (wide receiver) Tyler (Boyd) and Tee Higgins around to try to get them in the best positions to catch the ball.

"We just didn't do a good job of defending. We can kinda dress it up however we want, we didn't do good enough."

Pressure was largely responsible for three of the four Burrow-to-Higgins misconnections. Defensive tackle Cam Heyward and outside linebacker Alex Highsmith influenced the second, inside linebacker Myles Jack got a hand up and deflected the ball on the third, and outside linebacker T.J. Watt and Highsmith affected Burrow's throw on the fourth.

But a steady of diet of blitzes alone isn't the answer, in Austin's estimation.

"You can say, 'Hey, we'll do that,' but then you open up a whole different can of worms," he maintained. "I think there's times that you need to bring some pressure but I don't think we'd abandon all the tings that we think are solid, good defense. We just have to play those things better.

"I think all our guys know that, we just have to play those balls better. We can't give up seven plus-20 passes a game and expect to win."

Advertising