The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a busy free agency, including an overhaul at the linebacker position. After examining the position in 2022, with articles focused on Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts’ run defense, coverage, and pass rushing, I will look at coverage for the position in 2021 following a run defense study for that season. This will also include Keanu Neal, who was also signed by Pittsburgh. He played primarily at linebacker for Dallas in 2021, then at safety most recently for Tampa Bay last season, which I examined recently (run defense, coverage, pass rushing). Considering Neal had the most snaps in the box in all of his seven years in the NFL, the findings from this study should be interesting compared to the safety studies, which obviously includes players who align away from the formation primarily (i.e. Minkah Fitzpatrick). The goal is to see how this group fared in 2021, including Pittsburgh’s linebackers, and also compare this to last season as we anticipate changes for the Steelers in 2023.
Let’s get to it, starting with 2022 coverage snaps and targets to get a gauge of the quantity of plays comparatively:
In 2021, there were six players who land in our sights through Steelers lenses. Of the six, Holcomb had the most coverage snaps (566) and was targeted the most by far (56), which were sixth and second most, respectively, of the 73 qualifying linebackers (minimum of 15 targets). He provided great availability, starting 16 games, but opposing quarterbacks went his way quite often (highlighted by the trendline), which is important to factor as we dive deeper. Quite a difference from his injury-shortened 2022 when he landed on the bottom left with the eight-least coverage snaps and tied for the minimum 15 targets. After a dropoff, the only other player above the mean in both for 2021 was Joe Schobert, who had 411 coverage snaps (28th) and 32 targets (31st), while also playing in 16 games. Devin Bush was below the league mean with 365 coverage snaps (39th) but was targeted at and above average clip (33). That tied for 26th at the position and the most among the 2021 Steelers, compared to 50th in coverage snaps and T-41st in targets last season.
Three focused players landed below the mean in both, starting with Neal. He had 324 coverage snaps (47th) in 2021 and was targeted 25 times (T-45th), compared to a slight decrease to 301 coverage snaps and 20 targets last year. Roberts had 240 coverage snaps (56th) in 2021 and was targeted the minimum 15 times. That was less than the NFL average given his snap opportunities. Comparing this to 2022, his opportunities increased to 288 coverage snaps, and he was targeted 21 times, each of which ranked 52nd in the NFL. He was encouragingly available for all 17 games both seasons, which also highlights the Dolphins using him much more often on run downs. Lastly, Robert Spillane had the 185 coverage snaps, which were the least of the players we’re focused on (70th leaguewide), and was also targeted 15 times in 2021, compared to substantial increase to 321 coverage snaps (48th) and 27 targets (T-37th) last season. This brings up the Steelers’ curious choice to utilize him so often in coverage, considering the struggles and how much is asked of the position in Pittsburgh.
Now let’s examine the quality of play with completion percentage and deserved catch percentage. That is the number of completions and drops divided by the number of catchable targets and passes defensed.
Roberts jumps out on the top right of the chart with a particularly strong 69.2% deserved catch rate. That tied for second best in the NFL, along with allowing a 53.3 catch percentage that tied for third. Very impressive but important to recall his low targets, compared to his uptick last season when he unfortunately regressed hard to a 100% deserved catch rate and sixth-worst completion percentage allowed. After a dropoff, Bush allowed the second-lowest completion rate of the highlighted players (63.6). That tied for 21st leaguewide and an 85.7 deserved catch percentage (T-25th), landing him above the mean in both for 2021. He also regressed last season (when all Pittsburgh linebackers were below the NFL mean), ranking 51st and 50th. Schobert landed at the NFL mean in completion rate (68.8), which ranked 34th. He had a stronger 83.3 deserved catch percentage, which ranked second of the focused players and tied for 11th with several linebackers.
Unfortunately, we see two new Steelers below the mean in both, starting with Neal. He allowed a 72% completion rate (44th) and a 90.0 deserved catch percentage, which ranked tied for 53rd. Neal also allowed concerning rates last season, with an 80% completion rate that was second worst among safeties, and a 94.1 deserved catch percentage that was fifth worst. Yet another player who regressed last season. In 2021, Holcomb allowed a 73.2 completion percentage (47th) and a deserved catch rate of 91.7% (T-55th). He had a much better year in 2022 when he ranked seventh in deserved catch percentage among NFL linebackers along with tying for 32nd in completion rate, which was also above average. It’s important to recall this came on far less opportunity. Here’s to hoping this recent positive trend continues for him in the Black and Gold. Spillane bottoms the chart, tying for the worst possible 100% deserved catch percentage along with a 73.3 completion rate that tied for 48th, just behind Holcomb. Spillane did improve the former last year, with a much better 36th rank. He still allowed a worse completion rate that dropped to 57th, with each being below league average still.
Next, let’s look at the yardage of the targets with yards per attempt and yards per game:
Atop another chart is Roberts, the only player in our sights who was above the mean (comfortably) in both yardage data points. He had a particularly strong 4.9 yards per game, which tied for the best in the NFL, and a 5.5 yards per attempt number that landed a bit lower (T-22nd). His numbers came down in 2022 comparatively. They still ranked a solid 15th in yards per game but tied for 47th in yards per attempt. What discouragingly jumps out is Holcomb had a whopping 29.5 yards per game allowed — the worst in the NFL in 2021 — along with 8.4 yards per attempt, which tied for ninth most. This came on the most total yards allowed of the qualifying players (472). He was one of only two linebackers leaguewide to allow 400-plus (ouch). Thankfully this was better last season but was still below NFL average in both ranking 51st per attempt and 56th per game. Not ideal to put it nicely for the perceived primary linebacker for 2023. Here’s to hoping it’s not more of the same at the position for Pittsburgh despite all the changes.
Neal is the other 2023 Steeler landing between the 2021 Pittsburgh linebackers, slightly below the mean in yards per game (13.7) ranking 41st, along with a lower 7.7 yards per attempt. That tied for 56th and was slightly below the league average at safety last year, including an 8.1 yards per attempt number, which also tied for 56th. Spillane had the best singular result of the 2021 Steelers, allowing 10.6 yards per game. That ranked 25th but 7.8 yards per attempt, which landed 60th. He regressed in both regards in 2022, particularly with the third worst yards per attempt, and his yards per game dropping to 54th. Bush was at the NFL mean in yards per attempt in 2021 (6.4). That ranked 38th, but he allowed 15.1 yards per game (52nd), compared to an improvement last season in yards per game (35th) but ranked lower at 48th per attempt. Schobert was below the mean for the Black and Gold in 2021, allowing 16 yards per game (58th) and 8.0 yards per attempt (61st).
Another stat often used to evaluate defenders in coverage is QBR Against, so let’s see how they fare along with Wins Above Replacement (WAR). That is a points above replacement scale conversion that is based on the scoring environment.
Discouragingly, no player in our sights landed above the mean in both data points. The strongest singular result came from Bush, who had a 64.1 QBR Against that ranked a strong 13th in 2021. His WAR number was much lower though, tying for the lowest result of the focused players. Bush regressed in QBR Against last season, ranking 47th. He did have a slight uptick in WAR. Roberts was also above league average in QBR Against (81.4) in 2021, which ranked 28th and was slightly below the mean in WAR with the second-best mark of focused players. He unfortunately took a step back last season and was below the mean in both regards, tying for 41st in WAR and particularly a particularly low QBR Against, which was third worst. Holcomb had the final above the mean result in 2021, topping the players in our sights with a slightly above average 0.0 WAR number, but a below the mean 99.7 QBR Against that tied for 53rd. He also took a step back in both regards last year, falling below the line in WAR and 59th in QBR Against.
The final three players through Steelers lenses landed below average in both. Neal had a 94.1 QBR Against (45th). He was one of the others to tie for the worst WAR number in our sights, compared to an improved 0.2 WAR number among safeties last season. That was average for the qualifying players at the position, but he regressed to a particularly poor 133.5 QBR Against, which was fifth worst. Seeing all the 2023 Steelers take a step back last season is discouraging — and emphasizes some of the reasons why their services were available in free agency. Spillane had a 95.7 QBR Against in 2021 that tied for 48th and was the third and final player to bottom the highlighted players in WAR. He also regressed in 2022 as expected, tying for the league’s worst WAR result and seventh worst QBR Against. In 2021, Schobert had the lowest 103.1 QBR Against of the players we’re focused on, but a slightly better WAR number that was third through Steelers lenses.
To close, let’s look at SIS’s Boom and Bust percentages to see the rates of big plays allowed or made in coverage.
- Boom % = The percentage of dropbacks that resulted in an EPA of 1 or more (a very successful play for the offense)
- Bust % = The percentage of dropbacks that resulted in an EPA of -1 of less (a very unsuccessful play for the offense)
What stands out is the lower results in boom rate, meaning the highlighted players allowed successful plays from opposing offenses overall. That is not surprising for recent Pittsburgh pass defenses. Interestingly, Spillane was the only player that was above the mean in both in 2021, with his best result coming on a 13.3 bust percentage, which tied for 19th, along with a 20% boom rate, which tied for 34th. He regressed in both last season, with a particularly poor boom rate allowed the was the worst at the position by far. Bush topped the focused players with an 18.2 bust percentage in 2021, but bottomed the group with a 30.3% boom rate that was eighth-worst among qualifying linebackers. The 2021 Pittsburgh position room regressed last season with a lack of splash plays on defense, highlighted by no player landing above the mean in bust percentage, including the 2023 additions. This of course will be something the Steelers Depot team and I will have a close eye on this season in hopes for improvement.
Neal was above average at the position in bust percentage in 2021 (16%), which tied for 14th in the NFL. But it was also well below average in boom rate (28%), which ranked 58th, compared to a 30% boom percentage and 10% bust rate that ranked 64th and T-69th at the safety position last season. Holcomb was slightly above the mean in bust percentage (10.7), which tied for 31st in 2021, but also landed low with a 28.6% boom rate that ranked 60th. Compared to last year when his boom rate was slightly stronger (T-58th), he and Roberts each had a zero percent bust rate last season, very concerning heading into 2023. Roberts was slightly above the mean in boom rate in 2021 though at 20% (T-34th), but this fell to 52nd last year along with the aforementioned and disheartening bust rate. Schobert had the worst combined results in 2021, with the lowest mark of focused players in bust percentage (3.1), which ranked 64th and a 28.1 boom rate 59th.
Overall, there were a few brighter spots from 2021 in coverage, but largely speaking there was a regression across the board last season. Focusing on the 2023 Steelers, Holcomb was the second-most targeted linebacker in 2021. He was above average in coverage snaps (sixth) and was slightly above the mean in WAR and bust rate. His below-the-mean results stuck out more: completion percentage (47th), QBR Against (53rd), deserved catch rate (T-55th), boom rate (60th), yards per attempt (ninth most), and yards per game which ranked last in the entire NFL. Last season, Holcomb fared best in catch rates allowed, particularly a seventh-ranked deserved catch percentage, but regressed to a slightly below average in WAR, and below average yards allowed, QBR Against, boom and bust rates, particularly the latter, which tied for last on limited opportunities.
In 2021, Roberts fared very well in yards per game (T-first), deserved catch rate (T-second), catch percentage (T-third) and was above average in yards per attempt (T-22nd), QBR Against (28th), and boom rate (slightly, T-34th). He was at the minimum targets in the study and was below average in WAR, bust rate (52nd), and coverage snaps opportunities (56th). Last season, Roberts’ only above-the-mean result was yards per game (15th), highlighting his overall regression in coverage in 2022. In 2021, Neal only had one above average result among linebackers: bust rate (T-14th), with below average marks in yards per game (41st), completion rate (44th), QBR Against (45th), coverage targets (T-45th), snaps (47th), deserved catch rate (T-53rd), yards per game (T-56th), WAR, and boom rate (58th). At safety last season, the only above average mark he had was in WAR, with particularly low results in catch rates allowed and QBR Against.
We can clearly see the motivation for Pittsburgh to revamp the position room across the studies. But the 2023 free agent additions were underwhelming in several aspects of coverage last year as well. Here’s to hoping they can fare well for the Black and Gold this season, with particular hopes for Holcomb in this regard, considering he will likely garner the most coverage opportunities in a — knock on wood — healthy year.
What are your thoughts on the data? Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.