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Coaches Corner: How the Steelers Offense Attacks Cover 1 defenses

In a new feature on BTSC, we break down how the Steelers’ attack specific defenses in the Randy Fichtner offense.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to BTSC Coaches Corner, where we will examine the schemes the Steelers used in various situations throughout the 2018 season. The idea here is to go inside the game by looking at situational football - 3rd down offense, short yardage defense, defending empty formations, etc. How did the Steelers scheme for these situations? What personnel did they use? Why these particular schemes? In doing this we will highlight the philosophy of the coaching staff and the strengths and weaknesses of our players in executing their philosophy. We will also look to the upcoming draft for candidates who may be good fits for some of these schemes.

Our opening article examines how the Steelers offense attacked Cover-1 defenses and how, given the uncertainty at our wide receiver position, we might cope with this coverage moving forward.

Coaches Corner No. 1: How the Steelers Attacked Cover-1

What is Cover-1?

To begin, let’s explain the cover-1 concept. Cover-1 denotes man coverage with a single free safety playing deep in the middle of the field. The man defenders can play one of two basic techniques: “loose” man, where they typically align 6-8 yards off of their receiver, backpedal at the snap and try to keep the play in front of them; and “press” man, where they crowd the line of scrimmage, jam the receiver as he releases, lock on to his inside hip and run with him. The safety generally aligns 15 yards off the ball and is free to help wherever is necessary. He will get depth at the snap and read the quarterback’s eyes to try to anticipate where he is going with the football.

Here are the Steelers in a cover-1 alignment versus a double tight end set from New England. You can see the corner at the bottom of the screen and the slot corner are both in a press technique while the corner to the top plays a loose alignment. The techniques these defenders use are designed to take away or force the offense into certain routes. More on that momentarily.

Cover-1 is reliant upon three things to be successful: athletic defensive backs with man-coverage skills, an aggressive pass rush and a rangy free safety who can get to the football. A deficiency in any of these areas makes Cover-1 risky and susceptible to big plays. However, if teams have the pieces to play Cover-1, they can put tremendous pressure on offenses to execute at a high level. When teams can play man coverage, they can bring creative blitz packages, force offenses to simplify and create turnovers. It is a high risk, high reward defense.

When do teams use Cover-1?

Cover-1 can be played in any situation but teams tend to favor it when they want to blitz and bring pressure or in the red zone, where the amount of field a defender has to cover is reduced. Teams also use Cover-1 when they feel their defensive backs are better or more physical than the opposing team’s receivers. If a defense can jam an opposition’s receivers at the line and run with them, they will eliminate the windows a zone defense provides and force precise throws from a quarterback under duress.

Teams will try to mask cover-1 by rotating to it out of a pre-snap zone alignment so offenses can’t identify it and check to their cover-1 beaters. Offenses will see if a defense is masking its coverage by using motion, like the Patriots are doing in the photo above. They are flipping Gronk from one side of the formation to the other and the Steelers are flipping a defender with him. This suggests a man scheme. Identifying coverage is the first step in attacking it.

How did the Steelers attack Cover-1 in 2018?

There are a variety of ways to attack this coverage. The Steelers tended to utilize the following concepts:

  • Picks and rubs to free targeted receivers
  • Crossing routes that make DBs run laterally
  • 1/1 balls versus favorable match-ups
  • Screens where blockers can isolate man defenders

Here is a breakdown of how the Steelers utilized some of these schemes.

1. Pick concepts

Every team on the planet uses pick concepts, whereby one or more receivers run “routes” that impede the path of a defender to the man or area he is covering. Few teams run these concepts as often or as creatively as the Steelers, however. The Steelers pick for wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, out of bunch sets, off of RPOs, etc. They will pick to get the ball quickly into the hands of their playmakers in just about any situation. Most commonly, though, they pick to free their targets from man coverage.

Here is an example of a great pick concept used on a crucial play of the game-winning drive in Jacksonville. It is 3rd and 10 from the Jags 27 yard line with under one minute remaining and the Steelers trailing, 16-13. The Steelers are in a trips look with TE Vance McDonald off the ball as an H-back, Antonio Brown in the slot and Juju Smith-Schuster out wide. Ryan Switzer is the single receiver to the boundary. James Conner is in the backfield to the left of Ben Roethlisberger.

The Jags are playing cover-1 out of nickel personnel. The corner on Switzer is in press coverage while the corner on Juju is playing a loose technique. Jalen Ramsey is rolled up on Antonio Brown in the slot.

It is interesting to consider why the Jags are in press against Switzer and AB but are loose versus Juju. They are likely pressing Switzer because they feel confident he will not be able to get off the jam and create separation versus their corner. They are likely pressing AB because they do not want to allow him any space off the ball and because they have one of the best press corners in the game in Ramsey. And they are likely loose on Juju because the Steelers have already won twice on fade balls up the sideline to Juju and the Jags are intent on not letting it happen again. Thus, we can see how a defense will mix and match their man techniques based upon what they intend to accomplish.

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner anticipates man coverage here and dials up a beautiful pick concept. He runs a version of the traditional Divide route, which is a cover-2 beater that separates the safeties with deep corner concepts while sending a third receiver up the middle of the field. This is not cover-2, however, so Fichtner tweaks the route to adjust for a man scheme. The adjustment is shown below:

Roethlisberger will have two primary options on this play. First, with the soft coverage to the field, he can throw the hitch to Juju if he likes the cushion. Second, he can look for AB up the mid-seam. AB will be open if Vance McDonald can spring him with a cleverly set pick. McDonald has to fight through the jam of the strong safety to create enough space for AB and he then must delay his route just enough to let AB slip underneath him without blatantly impeding Ramsey. Finally, he must run hard to the corner to help pull the free safety out of the middle of the field. McDonald is not a receiving option on this play but his role is integral to its success.

The Steelers execute this play beautifully. Roethlisberger takes the snap and looks to Juju as his first option. He hangs with Juju for a moment but doesn’t seem to trust the cushion so he pulls off, hitches up and looks to AB. AB has slipped under McDonald’s pick and has just enough space up the middle of the field for Roethlisberger to deliver a perfect strike over Ramsey’s shoulder. AB is tackled inside the 5, setting up first and goal. The Steelers will win the game a few plays later on a touchdown run from Big Ben.

There are several keys to this play’s success. First, Ben hangs with Juju just long enough to draw the safety out of the middle of the field and away from AB. Next, the offensive line handles Jacksonville’s five-man pressure with ease. The pocket for Roethlisberger is clean, which allows him to come off of Juju, reset himself and find AB. But the real key here is that McDonald does a great job subtly setting his pick. Ramsey tries to fight through but he gets caught up. This frees AB and gives him a clear path up the seam. The throw from Roethlisberger is perfect but without McDonald’s crafty pick there would be no room for Ben to drop it in.

This play is well-executed all around. Its success begins with the design, though. This is a great job by Randy Fichtner of using a pick concept to free our receiver from one of the best man-defenders in the league.

2. Fade routes

We said earlier that a defense will try to dictate the routes an offense can run with the technique their man defenders play. Loose technique, for example, guards against the fade route while being vulnerable to slants and hitches. Press technique is the opposite. It takes away the short passing game and invites offenses to attempt low percentage deep throws.

If an offensive coordinator likes the match-up of his receiver against a press defender, he will not hesitate to take those deep shots. This is especially true when press is used against the vaunted “big” receivers so many at BTSC pine for. That thinking is logical. How hard is it to take a 6’4 dude who can jump through the roof like Martavis Bryant and just lob it up to him and have him go get it? Harder than many think. An NFL defensive back employed in press coverage gets paid an awful lot of money to excel at defending the jump ball. It’s amazing how a DB who uses good technique, proper positioning and well-trained ball skills can nullify the athletic advantage of many wide receivers in these situations.

Fortunately, the Steelers have one of the best young deep ball receivers in the game in Juju Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster is not a speedster, nor is he particularly large at 6’1. But he excels in using his strength to create separation from man defenders and he is tremendous at tracking the football in the air. Thus, Juju has become a great target on fade routes versus Cover-1.

As mentioned above, the likely reason the Jags were playing Juju in an off technique on that crucial pick play to AB was because Smith-Schuster had beaten them twice on fade routes earlier in the game. The first time was on a Steelers’ touchdown drive earlier in the 4th quarter. Juju was aligned as the single receiver away from a trips formation and he drew press coverage from Ramsey. With Ramsey pressing Juju into the boundary, quick inside routes like slant would be impossible to throw. The only route Juju could hope to execute, then, was fade. Juju knew this. Big Ben knew this. And Jalen Ramsey absolutely knew this. Fade, then, was a low percentage throw.

When you have a young stud receiver and a Hall of Fame quarterback, low percentage throws be damned. The execution here is amazing. It begins with Juju stutter-stepping to slow Ramsey from jamming him and then taking a strong outside release. Ramsey gets in great position but Juju has enough separation to keep Ramsey from getting his hands on him. That is huge, as it allows Juju to go up and get the perfectly-placed back shoulder dart from Roethlisberger. Honestly, what could Ramsey have done here to defend this throw? This is great coverage but even better execution by the offense. Fade might be a low percentage throw but you can see here why it is built into our passing package when we get press cover-1.

3. Running Back Screens

Todd Haley’s love of the quick receiver screen has rendered it about as popular as influenza in these parts. Fichtner doesn’t use nearly as many receiver screens as Haley did. He does, however, use screens to running backs as a way to combat man coverage. Here’s how:

The running back screen works against Cover-1 because linemen can identify the defender covering the back (usually a linebacker) and get a body on him while wide receivers run off their man defenders. This often creates space in the middle of the field for the back to run after the catch.

Here is an example of a slip screen to Jaylen Samuels versus the Raiders. Oakland is in 4-2-5 personnel with their corners in press and a nickel defender rolled up in the slot. They are actually playing a man-under two-deep concept but the underneath coverage is similar to Cover-1. The right inside linebacker will cover Vance McDonald while the left backer has Samuels. The Steelers will run their receivers off to take the corners out of the picture while McDonald will block his man defender. The offensive line will pass set and then release on the play-side. Right tackle Matt Feiler climbs to the backer assigned to Samuels and does a great job of riding him towards the sideline. Samuels, who is patient in selling the screen, tucks inside Feiler’s block and uses David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey as escorts into the secondary. The play tallies 23 yards.

Any time you can get a running back the ball with this much space, good things will happen. The Steelers found a variety of ways to screen and pick for their backs against man coverage. They ran their backs on wheel routes with crossing receivers rubbing off linebackers. They motioned them out of the backfield and threw them bubble screens. They ran traditional screens like the one above. The result was their running backs had 82 more receiving yards in 2018 than the previous season. Not bad, considering they lost one of the league’s best receiving backs in Le’Veon Bell.

Looking Ahead:

As long as Ben Roethlisberger continues to make some of the throws featured here, the Steelers will be in decent shape against teams who play them in Cover-1. Though Jacksonville, who played more Cover-1 than any opponent we faced in 2018, has frustrated him the past couple of seasons, Roethlisberger’s mix of experience, savvy and big-play ability makes him well-suited for the pressure Cover-1 teams attempt to apply.

The trickier evaluation when it comes to combating this coverage in the future is at the wide receiver position. I’m sure the thought of life without Antonio Brown makes many people nervous. Me too. You don’t remove one of the best players in the league from your offense without having to adjust. No AB would likely mean defenses would feel emboldened to play more man coverage, with a greater focus on stopping Juju. This would put pressure on the other receivers in our rotation to produce. Unfortunately, banking on the likes of James Washington, Justin Hunter, Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer to suddenly become reliable man-beaters is a dangerous proposition. Additions will have to be made if AB is no longer around.

If the Steelers were to look to the draft to fill (in part) AB’s shoes, what type of a player might they desire? If you watched the national championship game between Clemson and Alabama you saw two ideal cover-1 receivers in Justyn Ross and Jerry Jeudy, each of whom has good size and speed, is physical and can separate. One problem, however: neither is draft eligible.

What of the eligible receivers, then? This is where I step away and cede the floor to the audience. I spend most of my football-watching time studying schemes, not players. There are many people on this board better versed than me to make suggestions about which wide receivers we could target who could help us here. Drop The Hammer wrote a typically stellar piece the other day on wide receiver prospects in the upcoming draft. We are not evaluating receivers based solely on their ability to beat man coverage, of course. But with deep ball threats like Juju and Washington and zone-beaters like Rogers and Switzer already in the mix, a receiver who is both physical enough to get off press coverage and can also create separation with his speed would be ideal should AB wind up elsewhere.

So have at it, please. Who do you like? Who can alleviate the pressure we can anticipate when teams dare us to beat Cover-1 without AB in the lineup?

Thanks for reading. As always, Go Steelers!