PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers offense will be equipped to put up yards Monday at Washington, but another test awaits:
The Steeles' rebuilt defense must stop a Redskins passing attack that can stretch the field with -- wait for it -- a top-flight tight end.
Ever since Rob Gronkowski put on a three-touchdown show in Week 1 against Pittsburgh last year, the Steelers' struggles against tight ends became a theme. Many teams struggle to cover beasts such as Gronk, but the Steelers don't want to hear about it anymore.
Enter Jordan Reed, the Redskins' explosive option in the middle of the field that Steelers linebackers must contain. Reed had 11 touchdowns last year.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier, the prototype for the team's new speed-first defensive attack, said the Steelers are "young, fast and like to hit." But he knows they must stop tight ends before they can boast that identity every week.
"We're tired of hearing about that," Shazier said. "We try to focus on that every day when we can."
That focus, Shazier notes, comes through communication. It's up to Shazier, safety Mike Mitchell and others to align the defense so the matchups are favorable and every passing lane is monitored. For example, James Harrison can still pass rush effectively at age 38, but the defense probably doesn't want Harrison covering Reed 30 yards downfield. The Steelers will want their rangy players manning the seam.
Late last season, the Steelers combatted the pass by moving safety Robert Golden to a linebacker role in nickel coverage. This took Lawrence Timmons off the field on occasion. Timmons is still a quality linebacker, but covering tight ends 30 to 40 yards downfield became a problem at times.
Whether it's Golden, Shazier, rookie safety Sean Davis or others, the Steelers will likely want speed-on-speed in the tight-end matchup.
Seven of the team's last eight top draft picks (first or second round) have gone to the defense. The team found progress last year with 48 sacks and a top-5 rushing defense. Allowing 4,350 passing yards was considered an issue, but the Steelers aim to change that.
"We're smarter than people think we are," Shazier said. "The core has been together for three years. ...We are light years ahead of where we were last year."