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Film Room: Steelers “Match Game” on defense shows sophistication of Keith Butler’s scheme

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Man coverage or zone coverage? How about a combination of both.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

“The Steelers need to play more man coverage!” “The zone defense gets picked apart by good QB’s.” Sound familiar? Seems like those have been the refrain of Steeler fans ever since Keith Butler took over as Defensive Coordinator (DC) for the Steelers in 2015. But, as Nick Saban points out, “...when you can’t play zone, what do you do next? You play Man (cover 1), but if their men are better than your men, you can’t play cover 1. “

Nick Saban was the DC of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-1994. He described the dilemma he faced when the Steelers would run pass patterns that could not be defended by the Cover 3 zone that Saban preferred. “...Pittsburgh would run ‘Seattle’ on us, four streaks. Then they would run two streaks and two out routes, what I call ‘pole’ route from 2x2. “ Below are illustrations of exactly what Saban was describing (courtesy of MGOBlog):

So Cover 3 wouldn’t work. As Saban stated earlier, he didn’t have the personnel to play man coverage. What was the answer then?

Saban’s dilemma in Cleveland was the impetus for creating his “Rip/Liz match.” The concept is a pattern matching defense. Simply put, pattern matching has defenders covering certain receivers based on the patterns they run. They don’t drop to a spot, as in a traditional zone defense. The defenders also are not necessarily assigned to cover one receiver all over the field, as they do in man coverage. Pattern match coverages are also referred to as “match up zone,” as they are a combination of man and zone coverage. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the fundamentals of pattern match defenses. For those interested, the article linked above breaks down Saban’s Rip/Liz concept and some of its variations. What we will focus on is a pattern match concept the Steelers use frequently. It showed up in their recent preseason game vs Green Bay.

It’s a 3rd and 11 for the Packers. The Steelers are in their nickel defense (2 DL, 2 OLB, 2 ILB, 3 CB, 2 S). Here is how it looked just a fraction of a second before the snap:

The Steelers were attempting to disguise their look as a single high safety coverage. We can see Terrell Edmunds beginning to rotate from the middle of the field (MOF) to provide help over the top for LCB Coty Sensabaugh (#24). Morgan Burnett is also heading toward the line of scrimmage (LOS) on a blitz. I’m not concerned with Edmunds or Burnett for the sake of this discussion. We will concentrate on the 4 defenders to the trips (3 receiver) side.

The Steelers are essentially playing a form of Quarters coverage to one side of the field. An introduction to quarters coverage basics can be found here:

  • Artie Burns (RCB) has #1 on vertical and out routes. If #1 runs an in route, Artie will help on #2 vertical.
  • Cam Sutton backpedals to play “safety.” He has #2 vertical. Cam will also help on #1 or #3 if #2 goes flat or under.
  • Bud Dupree buzzes out to Cover #2 to the flat. If #1 goes under (inside), Bud will pick up #1. Essentially, the under route by #1 makes him the “new #2 receiver.” So Bud still has #2. It’s just that it’s a different receiver now.
  • Jon Bostic has to carry #3 vertical. Bostic should maintain inside leverage as he has potential help to the outside from Sutton.

Those are the basic assignments of the 4 defenders. Now let’s look at how they reacted to the route development a couple seconds into the play:

  • The #1 receiver runs an in cut. Artie can be seen pointing toward #1. Although we can’t hear audio, it is likely that Burns also called out, “Under!” “Under!” This would alert Dupree to pick up #1.
  • Bud had run toward the flat with #2. He must now react to Burns “under call.”
  • Sutton is in his backpedal, looking to help on any vertical.
  • Bostic is maintaining inside leverage on #3 running vertical

Let’s watch the whole play and see the result:

Bud re-routes #2 to the outside. This makes it easier for Burns to help vertical. Bud then picks up #1 on the under route. With Sutton in position to take away any throw to #’s 2 or 3 vertical, the QB has no other option but to attempt a throw to #1. It appears that the receiver stopped his feet for a second, with Kizer expecting him to break back outside. Either way, the execution of the defensive call was excellent.

A few things of note:

Communication

This has been a topic of conversation all off season. Communication is integral to pattern match coverages. If each and every defender is not on the same page, seeing and hearing the same thing, the result is usually wide open receivers. As well as the calls that occur during the play, pre-snap calls are just as important. The “rules” for each defender often change when the offense shifts to a different alignment. If the flat defender, for instance, does not hear and/or misinterprets the “check” call when the offense shifts from a 2X2 to a 3X1, a receiver is likely to be running free.

Versatility

Cam Sutton (and Mike Hilton) have received snaps at safety during training camp. While either CB may only be used at safety in an emergency situation, their practice time there has other benefits. The view point of the field from the safety position is vastly different from that of a CB. Getting used to adjusting to routes from that position can be more difficult than one might think. Having their slot CB’s comfortable playing safety gives the Steelers the ability to use more disguise in their coverages, such as the one we looked at here.

The Steelers used a similar call with Mike Hilton in the slot, vs the Vikings in Week 2 of 2017:

This play resulted in a Bud Dupree sack. Another instance of the Steelers utilizing pattern matching, with their slot CB dropping back to safety, came in Week 11 of 2017. This early 1st quarter play of the Thursday Night game is one many may remember:

Hilton intercepted the overthrown pass of Mariota.

The assignments on these two plays are slightly different than our first play. The point is, however, that Hilton has safety responsibilities in these pattern match calls. It’s clear the Steelers like to utilize the versatility of their players in order to vary and disguise their coverages.

It’s not purely “man” vs “zone” anymore. With the sophistication of modern offenses, the dilemma that Nick Saban faced more than 20-years ago has only been magnified. Pattern match schemes are one way to combat those. The Steelers incorporate them as part of their defensive repertoire. Combined with disguise, these coverages have led to success for the defense. I hope you’ve enjoyed our brief look at pattern matching. Something else to be on the look out for when watching the games. Let me know when you spot it.