The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-18, on Sunday, in a game that failed to produce the offensive fireworks many Buccaneers fans were expecting. Tom Brady was coming off two straight games with 350-plus passing yards and neither Mike Evans nor Chris Godwin were on the end-of-week injury report. Meanwhile, the Steelers were without star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon, Levi Wallace and Cameron Sutton, all sidelined by injuries. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt, was on injured reserve.
The Steelers' coaches and replacement defensive backs deserve credit for avoiding the fate that looked likely on paper. And one of their key defensive strategies was to not blitz Brady at all, probably to keep as many players in coverage as possible to help that thinned-out secondary.
Brady dropped back 41 times (not including one spike to kill the clock in the second quarter) and on just one of those snaps did the Steelers bring more than four pass rushers at home. That one play produced an incompletion, by the way. Pittsburgh rushed four players on 39 of those drop-backs and three on the other one, which ended in a 28-yard completion to Chris Godwin, the Bucs' longest gain of the day.
That blitz rate of 2.4%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, was the fourth lowest by any defense against any opponent in the league this season. The Bills chose not to blitz Matthew Stafford a single time in a season-opening 31-10 win over the defending-champion L.A. Rams. New Orleans adopted the same strategy against Atlanta and Marcus Mariota in Week One but lost, 27-26, after a late Atlanta comeback. And the Texans went no-blitz against Trevor Lawrence's Jaguars in Week Five and won 13-6. The only other 1-blitz outing by an NFL defense this season worked for the Chicago Bears in Week One to the tune of a 19-10 upset of the San Francisco 49ers amid a mighty deluge.
Against this no-blitz strategy, Brady completed 25 of 40 passes for 243 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, producing a passer rating of 87.8. While those totals are by no means terrible, they did represent Brady's second-lowest completion percentage (62.5) in a game this year and his lowest yardage total since Week Two, when the Buccaneers were dealing with multiple wide receiver injuries. Brady had only 110 passing yards by halftime, when the Bucs were trailing 10-9, and he got 69 of those yards on his team's final drive, which ended in a touchdown but unfortunately not a successful two-point conversion to tie the game.
Pittsburgh was able to deploy its seven defenders in coverage quite effectively. According to Next Gen Stats, Brady was able to throw to an "Open" target on 32.5% of his passes and a "Wide Open" target on 15.0% of them. Open is defined as the targeted pass-catcher having three-plus yards of separation on the nearest defender when the pass arrives and Wide Open is defined as the same thing but with five yards of separation. That's the lowest "Open %" Brady has seen in any game this season and the second lowest "WOpen %."
The Steelers also kept a lid on big plays for the most part. Brady's average of 6.1 yards per pass attempt was his second lowest in any game this year. When they did catch the ball, Buccaneers receivers found little room to tack on extra yards. Only 42.3% of the Bucs' receiving yards on Sunday were picked up after the catch, the lowest percentage the team has had in any game this year.
Clearly, the Steelers' pass defense performed significantly better than most expected, given their injury situation. In part, that's because they chose coverage numbers over pass rush numbers the entire game.