The mandate this offseason has been made clear. Sean Davis said the defense can’t be “out-physicaled.” T.J. Watt called the run defense “unacceptable.” Art Rooney II said they were “soft.”
Although they finished the 2017 season ranked 10th in rushing yards allowed, the Steelers were 28th in yards per carry. What truly is concerning is how the run defense performed over the last six games (including the playoff loss to Jacksonville), after losing Ryan Shazier to injury. The 133.5 yards per game allowed during that stretch would have the Steelers ranked 31st in the NFL, while their 5.1 yards per carry would rank dead last.
Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler reiterated what others have stated, in this article from 247 Sports:
“My thoughts in terms of our defense and how much we can get better is that we have to stop the run... If you look at our stats over the years over last year, the running game hurt us a little bit. We gave up a little bit more of an average than we’re used to giving up around here.”
Point blank: the Steelers must stop the run if their defense is to improve.
Not likely with new personnel. The Steelers figure to return six of the same starting front-7 from last year. The only new starter of that group would be FA addition Jon Bostic, in place of Ryan Shazier. With no slight intended to Bostic, it’s not as though they’re bringing in an All-Pro to fix their run defense.
Bud Dupree, speaking during the first week of OTA’s, offered some insight as to one approach the Steelers may take.
The Steelers might have a new twist to early-down run defense. “Basically just a 4-3,” OLB Bud Dupree said. “We gotta stop the run.”— Mike Prisuta (@DVEMike) May 22, 2018
Mike Prisuta expanded on the subject in this article for Steelers.com: https://www.steelers.com/news/defense-exploring-options :
The 4-3 look in the base alignment Dupree detailed following OTA No. 1 is an apparent response to the run-defense issues the Steelers experienced after losing inside linebacker Ryan Shazier last December in Cincinnati. “This is going to be my first year of rotating back and forth,” Dupree continued. “We know it’s going to be a run sometimes. And on short-yardage situations, on check-down plays, we’ll be able to rally around the ball real fast. We don’t usually try to do it in a lot of pass-rush situations. We just try to do it to be able to stop the run.”
A 4-3 look from 3-4 personnel is not totally new to this current defense under Keith Butler. The Steelers have been selective, however, in using the “quasi 4-3.” In 2017, the total number of snaps from it was probably less than 40 (I didn’t chart all of them. This is an estimate based on the games listed below). The bulk of those snaps came in five games: Chicago in Week 3, Baltimore in Weeks 4 and 14, Jacksonville in Week 5 and the Divisional Playoff game. Dupree’s comments imply the Steelers intend to expand the use of the “quasi 4-3.” With that as our premise, we will:
- Look at the difference in alignment of the Steelers 3-4 vs their “quasi 4-3”
- Discuss the pros/cons of each, taking into account the strengths/weaknesses of current personnel
- Discuss how Dupree’s “rotating back and forth” plays into the “quasi 4-3”
We’ll start with a look at the Steelers defense in their traditional 3-4 front:
Easily recognizable to any Steelers fan: a NT (Hargrave), DE’s (Tuitt and Heyward) lined up over the offensive tackles, OLB’s (Dupree and Watt) at the LOS, ILB’s (Williams and Shazier) aligned about five yards off the ball.
Now let’s look at the same personnel aligned in a 4-3 front:
First notice how Tuitt and Heyward are on the same side of the center. We also see Dupree aligned off the ball. The remaining players (Williams, Shazier, Hargave, and Watt) are not aligned all that differently than they would be in a 3-4.
The big difference is at the second level. In the 4-3, there are three linebackers in the five gaps between the tight end and the opposite offensive tackle. This alleviates some of the pressure on the Mack and the Buck by adding an additional backer. In the 3-4, with just two backers in those gaps, the Mack and the Buck are expected to cover a lot of ground. We’re not as strong there without Shazier, and we didn’t land a top-notch player there in the draft. So, using a third inside backer to assist at the second level makes sense. Now, the inside backers can play more of a downhill style (filling gaps) since they have less ground to cover. This is a better fit for our current backers than the 3-4, which requires them to have more range and be better getting over the top of blocks and playing in space.
The trade-off is that the first-level defenders (the three DL and Watt) have to do more, since there are now four first-level players instead of five. To compensate for the loss of a first-level player, it would be reasonable to expect more pinching, slanting and stemming from the 4-3. Line stunts allow the front to collapse gaps with penetration, which screws up blocking schemes. The quickness of Hargrave, Tuitt and Heyward could be well-suited for this type of an aggressive front.
Let’s look at a few plays out of the “quasi 4-3.” In the first GIF, an aggressive stunt from the 4-3 creates confusion in the Baltimore run scheme and is a win for the defense. Heyward pinches across the offensive tackle’s face, creating penetration, while Hargrave loops outside, drawing the guard with him. Meanwhile, the inside backers execute the Steelers famous “Cross-X Fire” stunt. Shazier goes first, drawing the center to him, and because the guard has blocked out on Hargrave, Williams comes free through the A-gap. The ball-carrier is forced to cut back, where he is swallowed up by Heyward’s penetration. This type of aggressiveness is a hallmark of the 4-3. By getting everyone moving at the snap, the defense can compensate for a lack of natural play-making ability at the second level.
Bud Dupree was the third inside backer on the majority of snaps when the “quasi 4-3” was used in 2017. He played the “Sam” position, where he was aligned primarily to the TE or “strong” side of a formation. There was one problem with this: like any inside backer, the Sam must be instinctive and must recognize things quickly. But these didn’t seem to be areas where Dupree excelled — which brings his use at the Sam in 2018 into question.
In the previous GIF, Dupree steps the wrong way before recovering. Why does he step outside when Tuitt is clearly working outside as well? Dupree should be pressing the B/C-gaps. It doesn’t hurt us on that play, but it shows he isn’t comfortable with his reads. In the next GIF, he’s even worse. Dupree buries himself inside when Tuitt is clearly working down to the B-gap. He should be over top of Tuitt here, which would allow him to make the play when the ball bounces outside. He doesn’t seem to understand his relationship to Tuitt and where he fits in the run scheme. Having a player who looks uncomfortable with his inside reads at the Sam is scary. This may not be the ideal position for Dupree.
Now, let’s look at a couple of plays with T.J. Watt as the Sam LB. On this first GIF, we see Watt diagnose the inside zone double-team in front of him and quickly fill the A-gap. The guard comes off of his double and picks up Watt, but T.J. has done his job. Inside zone is most effective when the runner cuts the play back, usually to the backside A-gap. By taking that gap away, Watt has forced the back to stay on the front side, where the edge defenders make the play. If inside zone is forced to bounce outside, it’s likely a win for the defense (the play is called “inside zone” for a reason). Watt doesn’t get a tackle or an assist in the box score here, but his quick read allows other defenders to succeed.
We see something similar in the next GIF. Here, Leonard Fournette tries to take inside zone right up the gut. Vince Williams does his part by taking on the fullback, shedding the block and getting a piece of Fournette (Sean Spence, for what it’s worth, gets wiped out by the offensive guard). Watt recognizes the inside run quickly, rips through the block of the offensive tackle and assists on Fournette. Go back to that false step Dupree took a few GIFs ago. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but a false step outside here would have allowed the OT to wall Watt off and would have kept him from getting in on the tackle, likely resulting in another couple of yards for Fournette. There are no false reads with Watt. He seems to read and react much quicker than Dupree, which makes him a better candidate to play the Sam.
Now we can see the Steelers’ reasoning in “flipping” Dupree and Watt:
- The Steelers want to use the “quasi 4-3” more in 2018. With Bud as the LOLB, it put him to the TE/strong side (offense’s right side) more often. This makes Bud the Sam LB. As discussed, we don’t feel playing off-the-ball is something Bud does well. With T.J. as the LOLB, he would now be the Sam LB in the “quasi 4-3.”
- If the offense aligns with their TE/strength to the left side, this would again put Bud as the Sam LB (in his “new” ROLB spot). This is where Bud “rotating back and forth” comes into play. The Steelers, in this case, would simply switch Bud back to LOLB (away from the TE) and T.J. to ROLB (towards the TE). This would realign Watt as the Sam LB.
How do we know this is what the Steelers would do? From Prisuta’s article, “The nuance (4-3 look) includes Dupree switching from the left side to the right side more often than in previous seasons.” Recall also Bud’s quote, “This is going to be my first year of rotating back and forth,” in regards to stopping the run.
Based on Dupree’s comments during OTA’s, the Steelers intend to use their “quasi 4-3” more in 2018. We’ve discussed why that might be a prudent move, given the Steelers personnel at ILB. Reviewing plays from 2017 showed that T.J. Watt seems to be much better suited to play Sam LB than Bud Dupree. We concluded that the proposed “rotating back and forth” of Bud and T.J. is directly tied to each player’s effectiveness as Sam LB.
Many questions remain, however. The Steelers use their 3-4 personnel against 21 (2 RB), 12 (2 TE), and 13 (3 TE) personnel almost exclusively. This is why they use their “base” defense 30% or less of the time. They have remained in their 3-4 group against 11 (3 WR) personnel on only a small number of occasions.
With their intent to use the “quasi 4-3” more often, would the Steelers keep their 3-4 personnel on the field vs 3 WR sets; at least on early downs? This could obviously leave them with an unfavorable matchup vs the pass: a LB on a WR. Normally, they would replace the NT (Hargrave) with a slot CB (Hilton).
Would the Steelers use 3-3-5 personnel to “lessen” the aforementioned mismatch? Potentially, they could replace, say, Jon Bostic with Terrell Edmunds. In this scenario, the LB’s in their “quasi 4-3” would again be Watt as Sam, Williams as Mike, with Edmunds now serving as the Will.
As for Dupree and Watt flipping sides: Do they do so every time the TE aligns to the opposite side? If not, do the Steelers not employ the “quasi 4-3” in the instances where Bud would be the Sam LB?
There is no way to answer those questions right now, but it’s fun to speculate on the possibilities of a “new” defense. We will follow any developments on the “quasi 4-3” as the Steelers work through minicamp and training camp. We certainly are anxious to see its use during the 2018 season.