The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming to Seattle for just the second time in 20 years.
And they aren’t coming with Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis. They are going deep.
Danger: Deep’s been deadly to these Seahawks.
“Yeah, they like to go deep,” safety Kam Chancellor said of the biggest test for Seattle (5-5) on Sunday against slingin’ Ben Roethlisberger and these new-age Steelers. “They like to get their receivers and tight ends or whoever is going out deep for the pass. They catch the ball. They like to throw it up.
“You’ve got to pressure — a lot. But Ben, he can get out of sacks. So you’ve got to plaster your eyes on your man.”
Seattle’s Kris Richard, at 36, is the youngest defensive coordinator in the league. He doesn’t need to be 56 to know the biggest, most immediate threat to the Seahawks’ quest for the playoffs.
“It’s their vertical passing threat. It’s the attack,” Richard said Friday. “It’s No. 7 standing back there, big strong guy in the pocket, got all kinds of guys around him trying to grab him, trying to get him down. He’s a massive, strong human being standing back there. He can throw the ball really far. They’ve got speedy receivers, and those guys can go get it.”
Of course, the Seahawks secondary isn’t just going to cower into a corner and watch Roethlisberger throw to Antonio Brown (second in the NFL with 79 catches and 1,141 yards), Martavis Bryant (a whopping 20 yards per catch) and tight end Heath Miller (second on the Steelers with 34 catches) all over the field.
Seattle is getting back nickelback Jeremy Lane. He will play for the first time since he broke his arm and tore a knee ligament in February’s Super Bowl. He brings experience, size, aggressiveness, freshness — and a swagger — to a defensive backfield that needs all that.
“I just feel like we match up a little bit different,” Lane said of the Steelers. “We are more physical than most guys they play. That’s what we bring to this team, physical on defense. They haven’t really seen that, so we are going to bring it to them.”
As Chancellor said: “Pittsburgh, they throw a lot. That’s just means there’s more opportunity.”
Thing is, opportunity like this hasn’t knocked for the Seahawks this season. It’s knocked them out.
Chancellor and the “Legion of Boom” have gone bust against the deep ball. Seattle has allowed a whopping 57 pass plays to go for 15 yards or more. Eighteen of those receptions have covered at least 25 yards.
Fifteen of those pass plays for at least 15 yards against Seattle have been to tight ends. Opponents have thrown for touchdowns in seven games against the Seahawks defense this season. Tight ends have scored touchdowns in six of those games.
When then-unbeaten Cincinnati trailed the Seahawks 24-7 in the fourth quarter, Andy Dalton and the Bengals went deep. And they went to their tight ends. Tyler Eifert’s two TDs forced overtime. Seattle lost.
Seattle led undefeated Carolina by nine in the fourth quarter. Then Cam Newton and the Panthers rallied to win on a 26-yard pass with 32 seconds left to Greg Olsen, another tight end. Cornerback Richard Sherman was playing a red-zone form of Cover 2, cornerbacks in zone for short routes with safety help deep. Chancellor and fellow safety Earl Thomas stayed in Cover 3, the Seahawks’ base set with a single safety deep in which Sherman has deeper coverage in his third of the field nearer the left sideline.
Last week the 49ers were going nowhere with quarterback Blaine Gabbert, trailing 20-0 in the second quarter. Then tight end Vance McDonald ran open down the seam for a 19-yard touchdown. San Francisco’s tight ends also had catches of 33 and 36 yards in Seattle’s eventual 29-13 win.
Now here comes Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
“They are right there at the top of the league for taking their shots down the field,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They’re really good at it.
“Their receivers, Brown and Bryant, are fantastic downfield receivers. And Ben’s an incredible thrower … he’s a big risk-taker to give them the advantage of going for it.”
Carroll called Brown “as big a threat as there is in the league.” Bryant, in his second season, had 179 yards receiving in Pittsburgh’s last game. That was a win over Cleveland in which Roethlisberger came off the bench to throw for 379 yards and three touchdowns on a day he was planning to rest a sprained foot.
Carroll noted Roethlisberger’s uncanny ability to extend plays and fend off pass rushers who often just fall off his 6-foot-4, 241-pound body “puts incredible strain” on a secondary.
Seattle’s doesn’t need any more strain.
The Seahawks benched starting cornerback Cary Williams for the third and fourth quarter last week. They spent this past week trying to choose between sometimes nickelback, sometimes safety DeShawn Shead, Williams or Lane as the starting corner opposite Sherman.
Sherman could shadow Brown, as he has Green Bay’s Randall Cobb, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Dallas’ Dez Bryant and San Francisco’s Torrey Smith this season. Stephen Cohen of seattlepi.com reports Sherman has allowed six catches for 62 yards on 15 targets in his shadowing mode.
Then again, if Sherman shadows Brown, Roethlisberger and Bryant would be free to attack that other Seattle cornerback in doubt — and the Seahawks zone coverage that’s been leaky, especially over the middle about 15 yards downfield.
“Yeah, zones have holes in them,” Chancellor said. “But we’ve got to know how to play routes, knowing what’s coming at you sometimes. But, yeah, they are getting up in zones, picking up yardage. There’s been a lot of gadget plays, also, with tight ends.”
He means tricky routes such as crosses with wide receivers, out-and-ups, pick plays and other means to get tight ends open down the hash marks.
Richard says the way to fix the problems is for the Seahawks secondary to get back to what it did the previous three years before this one.
“Stay on top. That’s what we need to do much better,” Richard said, meaning cornerbacks and safeties not letting receivers get behind them.
“Nothing’s changed. Same coaching point. We just have to go out there and execute much better.”
Thomas Rawls could duplicate his Seahawks rookie-record 209 yards rushing the undrafted rookie set last week, when Marshawn Lynch was on his way out for the next month because of abdominal surgery. Russell Wilson could equal or better his 83 percent completion rate with three touchdown passes last week.
But if Chancellor, Thomas, Sherman and whoever starts at the other cornerback Sunday don’t fix what’s broken the defense and Seattle’s chances to win the five games they’ve led late but lost anyway, the Seahawks will severely damage their playoff chances.
Carroll wasn’t hinting who would start at cornerback. Williams got benched for giving up routes he’s fouled up all season, and his coach gave a tepid assessment of how he responded to Shead and Lane challenging for his job.
“He worked hard this week,” is all Carroll said.
It will take more than that to ground these airborne Steelers — and keep Seattle in realistic range of the postseason.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (6-4) at SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (5-5)
SUNDAY, 1:25 P.M., CENTURYLINK FIELD
TV: Ch. 7 Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM
Line: Seahawks by 5.
The series: The teams have split 16 regular-season games. The Steelers won the only postseason meeting, Super Bowl 40 in 2006. That’s the last time Seattle has scored against Pittsburgh. The Seahawks haven’t scored a point in the last two meetings, in 2007 and coach Pete Carroll’s second Seahawks season in 2011. Both of those were in Pittsburgh. The only other time the Steelers have played in Seattle in the last 20 years was in 2003, the Seahawks’ last win in this series.
SEATTLE’S KEYS TO VICTORY
Keep ‘em in front of you: The Seahawks’ most painful losses have come this season because foes have thrown directly over them deep down the field. Defensive coordinator Kris Richard says “staying on top,” which Seattle did so well while teams didn’t test it deep as much the previous two seasons, remains the key to fixing the defense’s biggest weakness. Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant will test Richard Sherman, whoever starts at the opposite CB and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas often.
Make Ben throw it: Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is the best in the game at keeping pass rushers bouncing off him and extending plays to allow those deep-running receivers to get free so often. Seahawks DEs Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett has excelled affects QBs all season, but when they hit No. 7 Sunday they’d better force him to throw right then, if not bring down the 6-foot-5, 241-pound tree.
Rawls’ new role: Undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls is the lead back now that Marshawn Lynch will miss the next month following abdominal surgery. Seattle needs to feature him as early and often as they usually do Lynch, to set up the Seahawks’ play-action pass game that worked so well last week against San Francisco — and to keep Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense on the sidelines unable to control this game.
Steelers 27-23. Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays despite Seattle’s pressure will further strain the strafed Seahawks secondary. It will take Seattle’s best offensive day this season to win this.
20 — Jeremy Lane, DB (6-0, 194, fourth season): Will he play nickel or corner or both in season debut? In slot vs Brown may be game’s biggest faceoff.
34 —Thomas Rawls, RB (5-9, 215, rookie season): His lead job now. If PIT scores like it might, he needs another huge stay to keep SEA in it.
72 — Michael Bennett, DE (6-4, 274, seventh season): Succeeded all season getting to QBs. Must not only get to but bring down Roethlisberger.
7 — Ben Roethlisberger, QB (6-5, 240, 12th season): The task in any game vs PIT starts with keeping him inside the pocket, forcing him to throw early.
10 — Martavis Bryant, WR (6-4, 211, second season): Brown will get his. SEA’s most dangerous cover will be 2nd DBs vs. Bryant’s size, 20 yds per catch.
41 — Antwon Blake, CB (5-9, 198, fourth season): Hot-and-cold season. NE exploited him in opener. SEA will try to match 6-7 Jimmy Graham on him.