Steelers Film Room: The evolution of zone defense continued


A continuation of our look at playing press coverage within a zone defense, and illustrating how the Steelers could improve with younger legs at the free safety position.

In the last installment, we discussed how press coverage no longer automatically means man defense. We looked at how teams can play their corners in a press position in order to take away the quick throw. From that press position, the corner can still play his deep responsibility. This gives the defense the ability to play zone without giving up some of the easy throws that zone defenses sometimes fall victim to.

Here is an example of the Steelers playing exactly what was described in the previous installment. With one high safety, the Steelers can play Cover 3. Cover 3 gives the Steelers some good options in that it is solid against the run, and it provides deep help with the pass.

Or, schematically, it is supposed to provide help with the deep pass. To play this defense, you need a free safety that has enough speed to play the seam and the post route.

Here, you see the liability of Ryan Clark in coverage. Notice, the Steelers are playing two safeties deep, so Clark has less ground to cover. But, he is still not able to get the job done. When Clark sees the two vertical threats, he has to continue to get depth. As he gets depth, Clark needs to split the receivers and make a play on the ball once it is thrown. The Steelers are playing man underneath, with help against the deep pass over the top.

The corners are supposed to play in a trail position. If they play over the top of their man, they'll give up a deep out route. They play underneath because they know they have help over the top.

But, Clark cannot provide that help. He does not have the speed. He has to guess, and he was wrong. Only a poor throw by Matthew Stafford prevents a touchdown. This defense, schematically, is supposed to stop this throw. There is no way it should be attempted. It is a perfect call against vertical routes. However, Clark's lack of speed makes the defense vulnerable.

The Steelers were forced to play a lot of this defense: man under with 2 deep safeties. This leaves the Steelers weak against the run by reducing the amount of defenders in the box. Moreover, it is harder to get support from the edge players because they cannot play force. In other words, a safety split out over a slot receiver cannot read the end man on the line of scrimmage and read run or pass. Instead, he has to read the slot defender. If it is run, the slot defender is taught to run the defender off for 8 yards. The defender has to respect that, since he is playing man, and is not able to play the run aggressively.

This defense is also very susceptible to crossing routes and out-breaking routes, as you see in the clip below.

There is no way that Lawrence Timmons can cover this route. However, the Steelers do not have a lot of options. For all of the talk of the complexity of the Steelers defense, when your free safety cannot play the seam or the post, you cannot do a lot on defense. You end up playing a lot of man underneath, with safety help over the top.

The Steelers have shown, as we saw in the first clip, a willingness to play the exact coverage that Seattle used to hammer the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. With a little more speed at free safety, expect the Steelers to use it a lot more in 2014.

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