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Steelers’ coaching staff struggling to put defenders in positions to succeed

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have issues on defense, and the scheme which is deployed is certainly a big one.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know how the Steelers’ staff calls the defense on game day. As DC, Keith Butler likely has the final say as to what specifically is transmitted into the headset of the defensive captain. I would guess he gets suggestions from Mike Tomlin and perhaps from Tom Bradley as well. It is a collaborative effort most likely, with each of the three having a degree of input on fronts, coverages, blitzes, and most importantly, situational defense.

It is that latter category where the Steelers have failed most spectacularly these past few games. As was well documented last week, the Steelers defensive staff was out-maneuvered by the Chargers offensive staff, who repeatedly found ways to get their faster receivers matched up in space against Steeler linebackers.

The most glaring example of this was on a 3rd and 4 with just over one minute to play with the Chargers at the Steelers 34 yard line and the score tied at 30. The Chargers came out in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) and the Steelers matched it by staying in their base 3-4 defense. San Diego correctly calculated this would mean the Steelers would match a linebacker on the #3 receiver to the trips side of an empty set. Rather than putting a running back or a tight end in that spot, as is often done, they inserted receiver Keenan Allen there. This should have sent off alarm bells in the heads of the Steelers coaches since Allen had caught about a dozen passes in the game to that point. The Steelers had a timeout remaining. They could have burned it and reconfigured their coverage to assign a different defender to Allen. They did not. Rather, Jon Bostic stayed with him, Allen beat Bostic like a rented mule, and the Chargers went on to kick a walk-off field goal for a 33-30 win.

Jon Bostic matched up on Keenan Allen on the most crucial play of the game, a clear win for the Chargers from a personnel perspective.

Don’t be mad at Jon Bostic for his failure to cover Allen. That’s not what Bostic gets paid to do. Asking players to do things they are not capable of is poor coaching. To be fair to the coaches, things happen quickly on a football field in live action and coaches don’t always see things that perhaps, upon reflection, they should have. Hopefully, they learn from the mistakes they make and improve on them moving forward. The takeaway for the defensive staff from the San Diego game should have been, “Get our players in better positions to succeed.”

After watching Sunday’s game in Oakland, it seems that message was not received.

Case in point: with the Steelers leading 21-17, Oakland had a 4th and goal at the Pittsburgh 6 yard line with :25 remaining in the game. One stop here and the Steelers would have kneeled out the clock for an important road victory. It was a great time for the defensive staff to tap into an adage that has been kicked around coaching circles for years: in big moments, don’t think of plays, think of players.

Coaches often fall in love with plays (aka schemes) because they make sense on a white board. Any experienced coach can draw up a play to stop an opposing scheme, in theory. The play on the white board should work, provided it is executed to perfection by the X’s that coach has drawn.

The same is true for any ideology, really. Communism sounds great on paper. Why not run a system where everyone works together, shares the wealth and makes sure are all take care of? It seems utopian when you put it that way.

The problem is this: people. It’s people who screw up the schemes and systems. Greed, vice and corruption (on one hand) and a desire to achieve something greater than the norm (on the other) have been the undoing of communism. Similar human desires have tainted capitalism, socialism and just about any “ism” you can think of. These systems are spoiled in the same way that players being unable to perform pre-determined functions often spoil the schemes diagrammed on a white board. There is no perfect system because there are no perfect people. So, rather than employ the best schemes at crunch time, which may not always compliment the skill sets of the players executing them, smart coaches try to get those players into positions where they can be at their best.

Back to that 4th and goal against Oakland. The Raiders came out in a 2x2 set with a single back flanking quarterback Derek Carr, who was lined up in the shotgun. The Steelers countered with a 2-3-6 look, with Bud Dupree and TJ Watt rushing off of the edge and LJ Fort as the single backer in the middle of the field. Four of the DBs locked on the four Oakland receivers, while safeties Terrell Edmunds and Sean Davis played a two-deep look offering help over the top.

The 4th and goal play. The Steelers are in a man-under cover-2 with four DBs locked on the four Oakland receivers and LJ Fort locked on the RB. They will rush four and use safeties Edmunds and Davis to help on in-breaking routes.

Four plays earlier, Edmunds had gotten run behind as the deep safety in a similar cover-2 look. He was lined up to the trips side of Oakland’s 3x1 formation. The Raiders ran a post-wheel combination from the #1 and #2 receivers and a straight seam from #3. Without having viewed the All-22 film of the game, it’s hard to tell what Edmunds did at the snap. But it looks like he drifted onto the wheel and was late catching back up to the seam. This is bad when considering that Carr never once looked at the wheel. Carr actually looked at the single receiver to the other side of the formation before coming back to the seam. If anything, Carr’s eyes should have held Edmunds near the middle of the field, where he would have been in perfect position to play the seam route once Carr reset and threw there. The ball traveled 43 yards in the air before it was caught at the 10 yard line. Any safety in reasonable position should have been able to make a play on a ball thrown that deep down the middle of the field.

In the images above, we see: (1) Edmunds employed as a two-high half-field safety; (2) QB Derek Carr look right, which should have held Edmunds near the hash rather than moving him off of it; (3) Edmunds late to recover on the seam route because he has drifted towards the wheel

What should we have learned from this? Two things. One, Edmunds was now a target. Football 101 says when you beat a guy on a big play, don’t wait too long to come back after him. Get him while his confidence is shaken. There’s a reason DB coaches preach “have a short memory” to their players. If you let the previous play get in your head, you’re bound to get beaten on the next one. And two, TAKE THE THINKING AWAY FROM EDMUNDS. If a guy’s feet are slow, there’s a pretty good chance he’s thinking too much. With the Raiders now in a goal-to-go situation and the game on the line, getting Edmunds into an aggressive situation would put him in a better position to succeed than forcing him to make decisions.

And yet, on 4th and goal from the 6, there we were in another cover-2 look with Edmunds in an over-the-top help position. If you were like me, you probably thought “Bring pressure” before the ball was snapped. On 3rd down we had brought five, gotten into Carr’s face and forced a weak throw that was almost picked off by Morgan Burnett. I saw the 4th down defensive alignment and hoped we were masking it and bringing heat from somewhere. Mike Hilton coming from the slot, perhaps, where he was rolled up in tight press coverage, a perfect position from which to blitz him while having Edmunds rotate down to cover receiver Derek Carrier.

Nope. We rushed four and got picked apart. Edmunds was useless sitting four yards deep in the end zone while Carrier ran an arrow route, bursting hard to the flat before pivoting and coming back inside. It’s a nice route, a man-beater, and Hilton stumbled trying to drive on the arrow while Edmunds came up late. Easy pitch and catch.

The thing is, an arrow route takes time to develop, and with pressure Carr may have been forced to throw early or inaccurately. By dropping seven, we gave Carr a comfortable pocket to work from while forcing our secondary (spoiler alert: not our strongest position group) to play lock-down defense. We put Hilton, an excellent blitzer, in man coverage and we had Edmunds, who had just blown a cover-2 assignment, play that coverage again. Despite the fact that Carr stared down his receiver, Edmunds, indecisive in his role, hung with the slant in the end zone. This rendered him essentially useless, which underscored another problem of the two-deep zone look here. With the Raiders opting to throw short, it relegated us to a de facto nine-man defense, with Edmunds and Davis non-entities as over-the-top defenders. Perhaps we guessed that Oakland would try to beat our man coverage with slants and we wanted help on the inside against those routes. Was that the best way to employ our personnel in this situation, however? By thinking more about scheme and less about execution, we did not put our players in the best possible positions to succeed.

The 4th and goal play. In the images above: (1) with no blitz, the Steelers give Carr a clean pocket and an easy window to throw into; (2) Edmunds does not read Carr’s eyes, sits on the slant and is essentially useless on the play.

Hindsight is always 20/20, so it’s easy to say what we should have done. Maybe if we’d played cover-0 and brought the house the Raiders would have hit us with a fade or a wheel route and scored just the same. At least then, though, we would have utilized all 11 defenders on the field rather than relegating two of them to spectator roles. And we would have taken a player like Edmunds, who had just been beaten in a two-high look a few plays earlier, and given him a specific, aggressive role that eliminated his need to process information. By doing neither, the defensive staff failed to make the best possible use of its resources. And for a second week in a row, it cost us the football game.

I’m the last person to strike up the “Fire So-and-So!” band and I’m not inclined to do so now. Coaching is so much harder in real time than most people think it is. The amount of information that must be processed and condensed into nearly instantaneous decisions is staggering. Coaches need to be exceptionally organized and must think like masters playing speed chess.

Some on this board have commented that the Steelers defensive staff does not know much football. I think it is naive to question their knowledge of the game. Keith Butler, Mike Tomlin and Co. have the equivalent of a doctorate-level education in the art of football. They are masters of their craft. That does not mean, however, that they are great in-game coaches. What you know and what you choose to do in the moment are two different animals. I have no doubt the staff knows a great deal; I am beginning to question, however, their ability to play speed chess against the other masters of their craft.

In professional coaching, mistakes have real consequences. The mistakes of the past few weeks have made this team’s margin for error perilously thin. This staff needs to figure out how to put our players in better positions to succeed (think players, not plays!) in crucial moments of the huge games we have coming down the stretch. If they can’t, they may find out how severe those consequences can be.