Steelers looking to extend success vs. rookie QBs

PITTSBURGH (AP) – The list of rookie quarterbacks the Pittsburgh Steelers have provided lesson after lesson to over the past 12 years is long if not always distinguished.

For every Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton that Pittsburgh’s defense has taken to task since the start of the 2004 season there’s a Charlie Frye, John Beck and E.J. Manuel.

Only time will tell which group Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz fits into. At the moment, the Steelers (2-0) don’t particularly care.

While they’ve been impressed as anyone by Wentz’s preternatural calm while getting the Philadelphia Eagles off to a 2-0 start, they’re ready to provide their own unique test on Sunday.

“He’s definitely made plays in this league so far, but it’s up to us to make sure that stops this week,” Pittsburgh linebacker Arthur Moats said.

That’s typically what tends to happen when rookies find the Steelers on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh is 19-2 against first-year quarterbacks over the past dozen seasons, holding opposing offenses to 15.75 points and forcing double the amount of interceptions (25) as passing touchdowns allowed (12).

Moats stressed “the secret is, there is no secret.” Maybe, but the defense Wentz will get an extended look at this weekend is unlike the ones faced by his predecessors.

The Steelers are evolving in defensive coordinator Keith Butler second’s season on the job after replacing mentor Dick LeBeau.

Last fall Butler tinkered with exotic blitz packages designed to ramp up the pressure and take some of the heat off a shaky secondary.

Through the first two weeks of 2016 he’s taken a decidedly less risky approach, often dropping Pittsburgh’s outside linebackers into pass coverage instead of sending them crashing helter-skelter into the pocket like a mob of “Pokemon Go” players.

Through eight quarters, the Steelers have all of one sack. They also have zero losses. Seems like a pretty fair equation to Butler.

“We haven’t done (blitzed) like we’ve done it in the past because we’ve got a pretty good offense too,” he said. “We’d like to have the (sack) numbers that the hierarchy in the defense in the league has, but it’s worth more to me to win ballgames.”

It’s telling that two of the three turnovers the Steelers have created have come on plays 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison found himself well downfield trying to cover players least a decade his junior.

In the opener against Washington it was a diving interception in the end zone to seal a blowout.

Against Cincinnati it was a textbook tackle on 22-year-old Bengals rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd that sent the ball squirting onto the soggy Heinz Field turf with less than two minutes to go to preserve a victory.

Call it the next step in the evolution of a defense searching for the proper balance between discipline and daring as Butler grows more comfortable with his personnel.

“It’s like college,” Moats said. “Think about the difference between your freshman and sophomore classes and your junior and senior classes. You’re still talking about the same Xs and Os, but we can give a lot more detail to it.”

Details the Steelers are still ironing out. Butler isn’t pleased with the inability of the defensive line to consistently create chaos. Then again, neither are his players.

“Sacks come in bunches,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “Once we get one, they’re gonna start coming and coming.”

The Steelers are trying to figure out how to get to Wentz. At its height under Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s defense made an awful lot of quarterbacks look like rookies. Not so much anymore. Then again, just because Butler hasn’t let Harrison and company loose doesn’t mean he won’t.

“You definitely want to beat him up,” Moats said. “You’ve got to hit him. Then again, if confuse him with different looks, now he’s worried about trying to get hit and he’s also thinking ‘Where’s the coverage at?’ ‘Where’s my hot receiver?’ It definitely needs to be a mix of both.”

And for all of their success against rookies, the Steelers can be had, even by players with an ‘R’ next to their name. Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith did it for Baltimore in 2007 and Brandon Weeden did it for the Browns in 2012.


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