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5 plays that demonstrate the Steelers defensive domination of the Rams

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An in-depth look at how the Steelers shut down the Rams offense in Week 10.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After last week’s focus on the offense, this week’s film room is all about the defense. Even though Mason looked the best he has all season in week 10, the defense was even better as it dominated the Rams to the point of outscoring the Rams offense 7-3 on the day. Even more incredible is the Rams scored those 3 points on 15 offensive possessions. The Rams average 32.0 yards per drive and 1.95 points per drive on the season, in this game they averaged 20.4 yards and “officially” 0.8 points, because officially defensive points count towards points per drive.

But that’s still 63.8% of yards and 41.0% of expected yards and points respectively. Anytime the defense puts up numbers like that over 15 possessions, they can have all 5 plays that week.


Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward wreck everything

Mike Tomlin in a recent interview talked about Bud Dupree, stating the things he is doing now are things he has been doing, he’s just more comfortable doing them this year. Well, to prove that point we have one of my favorite rushes the Steelers defense uses.

Bud Dupree is on the end of the line, screen left.

The Steelers run a lot of stunts, and a lot of different stunts, this is one of my favorites. Not a lot of teams run a stunt where the Tackle goes outside the end, because defensive tackles aren’t that fast and when the play works it still doesn’t result in immediate pressure like Dupree or T.J. Watt running free inside does. But it works, and because it works the offensive line has to account for a lot more possible assignments, and that sets up other stunts and rushes.

The key here is the gap between the tackle and guard. The more separation that is created there the easier it is for Dupree to take the tackle into the guard and leave Cam unblocked. In this one Cam fakes an inside move while Bud sells his speed and burst upfield. When Bud cuts across the Tackle he puts himself in the way of the guard and Cam has a free run at Jared Goff. Notice at the end of the gif that Dupree is letting go of the tackle, he did a great job of keeping the tackle locked onto him so no switch could occur. If the tackle and guard are able to switch at all the rush fails badly, because Cam can’t edge rush and Bud’s strength isn’t winning vs a guard.

This stunt worked several times in 2017, and was one of the reasons I was excited for Dupree and Watt switching sides, because Stephon Tuitt wasn’t as good as Heyward at finishing this stunt, and Dupree was better starting it than T.J. Watt.


The Lockdown, Part 1

After Minkah Fitzpatrick’s 96 yard INT return for a TD last week, the Colts were able to answer with a long TD drive to balance the score. This week, after Minkah Fitzpatrick returned a fumble for a TD the Steelers defense would not make the same mistake. The three plays that followed were three excellent plays in coverage for the Black and Gold.

Joe Haden is guarding Robert Woods to the bottom of the screen.

Haden sees Jared Goff stare down Woods after the play action and undercuts Woods’ route to force the incompletion. Haden has lost speed since his prime days, and he has had to make up for it with veteran savvy and the knowledge and reaction speed that comes with experience. But a few other things stand out on this play, both Steven Nelson and Mark Barron are locking down their assignments, so there aren’t a lot of options on this pay aside from Reynolds. Also, watch how fast Minkah Fitzpatrick is moving to the ball. In the interview I linked above Tomlin also talks about the Free Safeties he had coached that got a lot of turnovers, and he brings up that it isn’t scheme, some guys just always find their way to the play, and you see it here. If Haden had missed the ball, Fitzpatrick is right there to make a play, and if it is tipped up? Minkah is right there.

But enough about everyone else, take a look at Haden making the diving stab like he’s playing shortstop.


The Lockdown, Part 2

Joe Haden again on Robert Woods to the bottom of the screen.

Second down they go back to Woods, this time they take advantage of Haden’s deeper backpedal and his back to the sideline with an out route for a nice easy catch. But Haden is there in time to push Woods out of bounds with only one foot getting down. One more thing in that Tomlin interview linked earlier (check it out, it’s a great read) is the balance of playing the ball and playing the man in coverage, here, unlike the previous play, Haden has no shot at the ball, but he gets his man, and it brings up third and ten.

But why would they go right back and attack Haden after that first down breakup?

Because that was the best option. Goff starts the play looking to his left, the top of the screen, where Steven Nelson is on Josh Reynolds. Goff quickly looks off that route, he could have gone to Cooper Kupp underneath with Hilton giving Kupp a nearly 10 yard cushion, but Kupp isn’t getting much on that throw and Goff never looks at him, Barron is all over Todd Gurley (the Rams would complete 0 passes to RBs in this game) so he goes right to Haden and Woods. If you look at Nelson and Haden when their WRs make their cuts you can see Goff chose the right corner to pick on. Reynolds is smothered by Nelson, but Woods has room to make the catch in front of Haden. The most open target is Kupp behind the line of scrimmage, the second most open target is Robert Woods. Haden just made the play anyway.


The Lockdown, Part 3.

Third and ten, and we get this beautiful play by Mark Barron that looks pretty basic, but really shows his value to the team.

Mark Barron lines up outside T.J. Watt to the right side of the screen.

This play involves another common Butler blitz, where they line up a rusher just outside T.J. Watt, and send both. This was the blitz Mike Hilton most commonly used to get his sacks in 2017, the Steelers have also used it with Terrell Edmunds, L.J. Fort, Devin Bush and Mark Barron lining up outside of Watt in the last two years.

There’s a few ways to defend it, you can’t really get a guard over to Watt because of the wide set, so to block it, opponents commonly need the RB to take on the second rusher, leaving no help for the tackle tasked with blocking Watt. The other way to attack it is what the Rams try here, you just run a screen that way. You can see Barron change direction after his first step. He is watching the RB, and the way the RB releases off the snap it’s clear Gurley isn’t blocking. Barron changes his trajectory and meets Todd Gurley to shut down the screen entirely. Gurley can be seen grabbing Barron and trapping his arm, otherwise Mark Barron likely has an interception on the play.

Barron’s awareness is more important on this play than you might initially think. Look at the rest of the field when the ball is arriving.

If Barron rushes with Watt, Gurley has 2 of his lineman and Minkah Fitzpatrick between him and a first down. Gurley isn’t the dominant force he used to be, but he’d pick that up. Instead it is 4th and 10 and the Rams respond to the Steelers defensive TD with a 3 and out.

This isn’t a spectacular play, Barron doesn’t have many of those, but outside the miscues from early in the season most of his film is him in good coverage and the QB looking elsewhere. More importantly he’s a LB that the coaches trust to make smart reads and be solid in coverage. He’s not a good run stopper at all, and that showed in this game, but he gets a bad rap that I blame largely on the nature of the role he plays for the Steelers.


Mike Tomlin’s problem solvers

In recent years both Tomlin and Keith Butler have come under fire for egregious mismatches in coverage that led to big plays. Mismatches and miscommunications were the two most glaring flaws in the Steelers defense. Both seem to be gone now. Was it a sudden epiphany for Butler? Did Teryl Austin walk in and take over the coverage assignments?

No.

The Steelers went out and got a mismatch canceler in the 2018 draft, and got another in free agency this past off-season.

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is in the bottom right corner of the screen., Vince Williams (#98) is in front of him near the hash marks.

Mike Tomlin described Sean McVay’s offense as having “awesome mis-direction and play-action passes associated with it,” that make it unique in today’s NFL. he also said “It’s really retro, but when you are as young as Sean McVay, it’s really innovative.” (seriously, great interview, link at the start of the article)

We see that here, It’s a whole bunch of misdirection with a single goal, Vince Williams in coverage on a TE in the flat. This 2nd and 1 play would have been an easy first down except for Terrell Edmunds breaking on the play and stopping the TE’s progress for a 1 yard loss. On third and 2 Blake Bortles ran for 1 yard, and on 4th and 1 the Rams would try a fake punt that ended with Trey Edmunds getting an interception. But while it was Trey Edmunds who made the splash play, it was his younger brother Terrell Edmunds who set the stage for it by erasing a mismatch Sean McVay was able to create.

If you look at the start of the play, and of most plays the Steelers defense face you will see Mark Barron and Terrell Edmunds on opposite sides of the field. That’s not by accident. Both are top level athletes who are tasked with countering mismatches the offense is able to create. So instead of Vince Williams getting beat outside by a TE Terrell Edmunds gets a tackle right after the catch, and instead of T.J. Watt lined up covering a WR, it is Mark Barron taking that assignment for Watt and limiting the mismatch.

As a result neither looks great in advanced defense, because neither are that terrific in coverage. But while Joe Haden was watching film on Robert Woods, probably Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds as well, Terrell Edmunds might cover 2 different RBs, 2 TEs and 3 WRs in one game while playing cover-2 zone, studying run blocking tendencies and having to know how to defend from multiple positions for when he switches with another player.

Edmunds has been up front about his need to improve technique and his desire to make splash plays, and that might come, but for now it is important to recognize that there are players contributing by limiting the damage when the offense gets a win, even if it doesn’t make them look great.