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Looking at the Steelers defenders who are carrying more responsibility this season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense started the 2020 season much like it ended the 2019 season, pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers. While in 2019 the team was one of the best pass defense teams in the NFL, the 2020 Steelers have focused on run defense more in the first three games of the season and are currently the best run defense team in the NFL. The results are similar, even if some of the details are a bit different.
Some of the standout players from 2019 don’t look like the same players early on in 2020, while some other players who have been role players in the past are looking like stars. In this film room I am going to take a quick look at several players that are playing better than the statistics or even film might show, simply because they are being asked to do more, and are in more difficult situations.
It’s all about help in the secondary.
Last season Steven Nelson was statistically one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, putting up advanced stats that ranked with the top corners in the league, while holding receivers he covered scoreless. In 2020 he leads the team in yards allowed, and has three touchdowns against him in 3 games.
Week 1, 2nd quarter, 13:54. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety.
I’ve talked in other film rooms about the Minkah Fitzpatrick problem. The Steelers safety is the best deep safety on the team, and yet he is also less effective in that role, and makes the most of his plays attacking forward. This first play shows the danger of designing plays to allow Fitzpatrick to move up and attack. The New York Giants run a receiver behind and in front of Fitzpatrick, and Daniel Jones only has to read Fitzpatrick to know which receiver to throw to. Steven Nelson gets dinged for a 40+ yard TD on a play where he successfully steered his receiver to the middle, where he was supposed to have deep help. The Steelers have given Nelson much less deep help than they did in 2019, and he’s not a Hall of Fame corner, he’s not going to play on an island without getting beat occasionally.
Week 1, 4th quarter, 1:56. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the top of the screen.
This slant route beats Nelson, but the real problem here is Cameron Sutton. Sutton starts the play just outside Bud Dupree to the top of the play, right on the line. Sutton is watching the quarterback’s eyes and gets led out of his zone allowing Daniel Jones to laser a ball to his receiver, making it almost impossible for a defender to make a play. If Jones has to float the ball over Sutton, Nelson has a much better chance at making a play here.
The middle of the field has been open a good amount early on this season, due sometimes to mistakes like this one, but often because of the Steelers heavy use of blitzes. So far the player who has been suffered the most is Steven Nelson, who is a much better corner if he can pass off either deep or shallow routes, but will struggle some when he is on an island.
Teams have caught onto the Steelers heavy use of cover-1 to facilitate blitzes. It isn’t a tendency unique to the Steelers, if you are going to blitz, cover-1 is one of the very best ways to do it. It also works for the Steelers, they are a top defense, and they thrive on getting pressure and sacks. Throwing multi-level routes at the free safety and attacking the middle of the field underneath are both good ways to attack cover-1 blitzes.
Teams can also just avoid the free safety entirely.
Week 2, 2nd quarter, 14:06. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety toward the bottom of the screen.
Minkah Fitzpatrick isn’t involved at all here, he’s nowhere near any of the routes being run. You can see that teams know they can get 1v1 matchups on the sidelines, and they attack underneath as well. The Steelers are running a single-high safety here with man underneath (including a pattern match to the bottom of the screen) and while the Denver Broncos successfully take Fitzpatrick out of the play, the Steelers blitz gets to the quarterback. The Steelers are getting beat when the rush doesn’t get home a bit this season, but the blitz finds the quarterback enough to make it well worth it.
Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick aren’t really having bad seasons, they are the same players they have been. They are being asked to play tougher assignments with less help, and that means there are more plays where the opposing team gets them in bad spots. But the team is benefitting greatly from the aggressiveness they can play with because they can trust their secondary to limit the damage.
Devin Bush and Tomlin-ball
Week 3, 1st quarter, 7:18. Devin Bush is in the middle of the field, up on the line to start the play.
Devin Bush on this play is doing something very interesting. The Steelers are running a pattern match to the top of the screen, the strong side (3 of the 5 receivers are on that side) of the play. Bush starts out looking like he’s following the inside receiver, but then drops into a zone in the middle of the field. Bush gets deep here and tackles the receiver at the catch point.
Here’s a different play with similar movement from Bush.
Week 1, 4th quarter, 4:25. Devin Bush is in the middle of the field, up on the line to start the play.
Bush carries the #3 (third receiver counting outside in) receiver on the strong side (bottom of screen) up the hash marks, but when the receiver runs a hook route, Bush drops farther, and right at the end of the play, if you look at the two deep safeties and Bush, they look a lot like they are running a Tampa-2 defense here, with Devin Bush dropping into that deep middle linebacker zone. That’s what he is doing, but the Steelers aren’t running a cover-2 zone, they are running a variation on their cover-6 pattern matching defense.
Here it is again, the Broncos run three vertical routes on the strong side in this one.
Week 2, 4th quarter, 8:56. Devin Bush is the linebacker on the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen.
Bush carries the #3 up the hashmarks the length of the route, before turning to see what is going on in the play. That’s not zone at all.
The key to understanding this defense is the deep safety moving to the weak side at the snap. The Steelers are giving more deep help to the weak side and taking their deep safeties out of the single-high zone that is typically played on a play like this. But moving them over that far leaves a nice big gap in the middle of the field, a gap they fill with Devin Bush. At least, when no shallow routes are being run into the middle.
Week 3, 3rd quarter, 5:24. Devin Bush is in the middle of the field on the 25 yard line to start the play.
Devin Bush is moving to carry the #3 receiver up the hashmarks when that receiver cuts into the middle of the field. If you compare this to the one above where the receiver ran a hook, you can get a sense of the rules Devin Bush is following in this pattern matching variant. He is going to follow the #3 receiver up the hashmarks as deep as they go. if they cut back or outside, he drops into that cover-2 style MLB deep zone, if they go inside, he switches to man covering them, and one of the other defenders will drop deeper. It is likely that Minkah Fitzpatrick (on the hashmarks to the top of the screen when the play starts) would drop deeper on this play if he doesn’t see Watson running.
The Steelers aren’t just playing Devin Bush every single defensive snap in 2020, they have greatly expanded his role in the defense, and brought this new wrinkle to their defense because of his ability. This is a tough assignment for Bush, but it allows Terrell Edmunds to focus on the weak side defense, and has Minkah Fitzpatrick playing up farther in a role he thrives in, and teams are reluctant to throw to the strong side at all when they face this defense.
If you go back to the film of the play again, this play also shows a trend the Steelers are using more in 2020 than in 2019. The Steelers are in their 3-4 set and Bud Dupree is the slot defender to the top of the screen. Dupree continues to be good in coverage for an edge rusher, and he stays with his receiver on a deep route. Dupree has dropped into coverage a handful of times because the Steelers are using more 3-4, even when the opponent is playing 3 wide receivers. Dupree has yet to be targeted, and his receivers don’t get open much. Strangely, the downside of the expanded 3-4 usage hasn’t been the pass defense.
Week 2, 3rd quarter, 1:55. Bud Dupree is the slot defender, Devin Bush is the linebacker nearest him.
This is the Steelers in 3-4 with Bud Dupree and Devin Bush dropping into coverage. Melvin Gordon cuts back on this play and gets outside Cameron Heyward, who is a phenomenal defensive tackle and a great defensive end in a 3-4 set, but who isn’t in the same league as Bud Dupree at setting the outside edge against a run. It’s Bud Dupree’s job every down, but it is rarely Cameron Heyward’s job. With Bush’s back to the ball he is no help either, and the Broncos take advantage of the Steelers playing a bigger set by running right where two of their best run stoppers would normally be waiting.
And that is how, through three games you get Vince Williams looking like the Steelers best inside linebacker and Mike Hilton looking like the best defensive back on the team. Other players are doing more, so that they can specialize more and make plays. Minkah Fitzpatrick is still a great player despite his stats, Devin Bush is a much better, and far more valuable player than he was last year when his role was simpler and his stats better, and players like Mike Hilton, Tyson Alualu and Vince Williams, while they are really good players, are collecting stats because of the players that are taking on more responsibility, and allowing them to have more focused roles.
That’s not to take away from how well Alualu, Williams and HIlton are playing, they still have to make the plays, and they are doing it. I just want to point out that the players who aren’t getting the flashy numbers aren’t necessarily playing worse, often they are just tasked with doing more.