The Steelers tried everything they had at their disposal last season to cover Keenan Allen, save not guarding him at all.
And the Chargers' star receiver beat every coverage they threw at him in Los Angeles' 33-30 come-from-behind win over the Steelers.
Allen, who finished the game with 14 receptions -- on 19 targets -- for 148 yards and a touchdown, caught six of the eight passes thrown his way for 68 yards when he had a cornerback in coverage according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats. He caught one of two passes thrown his way with a safety in coverage, though that went for a 10-yard touchdown after the ball ricocheted off corner Joe Haden when he and safety Sean Davis collided going for the ball. And, finally, he caught seven of nine passes thrown his way for 70 yards when he had a linebacker in coverage.
A linebacker in coverage on a wide receiver, let alone a team's best receiver? That happened quite a bit in that game. But it also happened for a reason.
"They were doing a really good job of shifting things. When you’re not in man-to-man calls, you can’t just put people in different positions," Haden told me.
The Steelers (1-4) feel they are better equipped to combat Allen in 2019 than they were a year ago. Whether or not that is the case will be seen Sunday when they travel to Los Angeles to face the Chargers (2-3).
Allen is one of the league's best route runners. And while he doesn't have great straight-line speed, that, coupled with his size (6-foot-2, 211 pounds) makes him a tough matchup, especially with a savvy veteran quarterback such as Philip Rivers figuring out where best to line him up.
"We’ve studied that tape and we’re in a position where we can put safeties there instead of linebackers," Haden said. "We know how they try to get Keenan away from outside guys. Because when they can get him on a safety or linebacker, it’s a favorable matchup."
The Steelers are playing the third-most man-to-man defense in the NFL this season at just over 52 percent. It's a similar percentage and ranking to where they were at last season.
The difference, however, is who they're doing it with. Last season, they had Coty Sensabaugh at one starting cornerback spot, Jon Bostic or L.J. Fort at inside linebacker next to Vince Williams and Davis at safety. Those players have been replaced by Steven Nelson, Mark Barron and Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Add in improved play from nickel corners Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton, and the Steelers' secondary seems much better equipped to deal with Allen.
When the Steelers went to their nickel or dime defenses against the Chargers in the second half of that game, Rivers simply checked into a run play. When the Steelers went to their base to stop the run, Rivers made sure Allen got matched up in the slot against a linebacker, putting a couple of receivers outside of him to ensure that coverage.
Coverage was not Bostic's strong suit. And Fort was better, but barely adequate. But Barron and Bush were brought in specifically for their coverage ability. Because of that, the Steelers feel they have a better chance to mix things up and keep Rivers guessing because he won't be tipped off by what personnel package is on the field.
"Definitely, especially with some of the personnel we now have, with Devin and Mark that can run and cover," Hilton told me. "We’ve also got some things we think will keep them off balance. We know how they attacked us last year. We’re going to try to take that away."
Not that a player such as Allen can be completely stopped. That's certainly not the case when he has 19 passes thrown his way as he did in the last meeting.
Allen was limited to just four catches for 18 yards on six targets last week in a 20-13 loss to the Broncos, with Rivers choosing instead to target running backs Austin Ekelar and Melvin Gordon 22 times. Ekelar and Gordon finished with a combined 19 receptions for 93 yards, but that's a better solution than simply allowing Allen to run wild, especially with the Steelers not wanting to get into a shootout like last season. They'll have undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges making his first career start in the game.
"They’re in the division, so they see them a lot and know them," Hilton said of the Broncos. "They really just manned up across the board and did some double teams on Allen."
It worked. And you'd better believe the Steelers will try to do the same.
Allen's 38 receptions are fourth in the NFL this season -- Ekelar is third with 39, but 15 came last week -- while his 53 targets are third in the league.
Whether their plan against Allen works or not, well, that remains to be seen.
"They’re going to find ways to get their guy the ball, put him in positions to make plays," Haden said. "We kind of have an idea of what they want to do. We’ve just got to go out and execute."
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