Protecting Chiefs Patrick Mahomes from the ‘Blitzburgh Steelers’
If Patrick Mahomes’ demeanor in the pocket changes to the point where he’s jumpy, rattled and acting like he’s seeing ghosts by the end of the third quarter on Sunday, well, he’ll be just another addition to the illustrious list of victims of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense.
The unit that earned the team its “Blitzburgh” nickname has been collecting notches on its belt for decades. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that a first-year starter like Mahomes might fall prey to the mind games and assortment of pressures triggered by the Steelers’ defense. They’ve built their identity on making opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable, and last week’s seven-sack performance against the Cleveland Browns gave no indication that will change any time soon.
“I feel like I get better and better with the blitz protection every single week,” Mahomes said. “It helps that we have good game plans. (Offensive line) coach (Andy) Heck, EB (offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) and (quarterbacks coach Mike) Kafka always give me a precise plan on how to pick up the protections, and that helps me out a ton.
“I know Pittsburgh does a lot of that stuff, that’s kind of their thing, but we’ve played them a lot in these last few years, and you can kind of look back at the tape of how they wanted to try to go against us and how to figure out ways to combat that.”
Last season, the Steelers actually rushed five men or more just 22.5 percent of the time, according to Football Outsiders. That ranked them 19th in the NFL in how frequently they blitzed opposing offenses.
However, their Blitzburgh moniker isn’t built on sheer volume. The reputation has had more to do with the variety of ways they come after a quarterback than how many men they send or how often they send them. Current Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s approach is in line with previous Steelers assistants who used the zone blitz — blitzing linebackers and/or defensive backs while dropping linemen or edge rushers into coverage — as a means of confusing an opponent’s blocking schemes ... and opposing quarterbacks.
Only one team in the NFL, the Browns, blitzed their defensive backs more often than the Steelers (14.8 percent) last season.
Asked whether the Steelers’ defense relies more on actual pressure or on confusion, Bieniemy said, “I think it’s a combination of both because of their unique 3-4 scheme. You’ve got all these jersey numbers around you. You’ve got all these different guys lining up in many different places. They can present some issues if you’re not in-tune to how they do it.
“Yes, it does cause confusion at times. But also, they’ve got some guys that do a great job of defeating the one-on-one block. So we have to have the ability to pick up the blitz, but also we’ve got to do a great job of sustaining and finishing.”
In their season opener against the Browns, the Steelers sacked the quarterback seven times, with four different players getting in on the action. T.J. Watt led the way with four sacks in one highly disruptive individual performance, but linebackers Bud Dupree and Jonathan Bostic each also recorded sacks, as did defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. Heyward recorded 12 sacks last season.
“Communication is going to be huge — that’s going to be especially difficult with a very good playing environment in Pittsburgh,” Chiefs center Mitch Morse said. “For us, it’s all being on the same page, all collectively battling and winning our one-on-one matchups.”
Morse said pre-snap awareness and calls will be “huge,” and if the offense isn’t in sync in regard to those things, it will show. He stopped short of assigning any extra significance to the fact that Mahomes is still relatively inexperienced.
Morse said the biggest thing this week is simply not focusing too much on the blitzes, because he and his teammatesknow what they need to do as far as communication and attention to detail.
That doesn’t change drastically this week.
“Sometimes they’ll show you where they’re coming from, sometimes they won’t,” Morse said. “They’re not afraid to do it. Their mindset is even if we know what they’re doing, they’re going to do it better than the way we can block it.”