The Steelers beat the Cardinals in Arizona, and while the Cardinals are a pretty bad team, they do present some interesting challenges. The biggest one being the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, Kyler Murray. Murray’s mobility and the Cardinals smart offense had caused numerous teams trouble. Two of Murray’s best games were against the San Francisco 49ers, one of the best defensive teams in the NFL, and the Cardinals had the lead against the 49ers in the 4th quarter just a few weeks ago.
This film room is going to focus on the things the Steelers did to disrupt their quick passing game and contain Murray’s strengths as a runner.
A well-prepared secondary
The Steelers are in cover-1 on first and 10, check out the WR routes.
The Steelers are in man, and the Cardinals are running a quick-hitter with Murray looking to his right (top of the screen) at the snap. It seems really simple to cover, because the DBs on both sides switch their coverage effortlessly. At the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is on the TE to start, but when the TE releases to the flat and the WR that was Joe Haden’s responsibility runs up-field they just switch. If Edmunds is trying to run down the TE here the WR would be in his way and this play would likely gain a few quick yards.
You may be surprised to hear that these concepts work for the Cardinals a lot. The Steelers have become a really good switching team in man, that shows here, and it pays off. You can see Mike Hilton (slot corner to the bottom of screen) start to go with Larry Fitzgerald before switching his responsibility.
But there’s another side to this play, the pass rush, where Mark Barron (26) gets the sack.
I’ve shown several plays this season where Barron faked this blitz and covered a RB, this time Devin Bush is on the RB and Barron is really coming.
Gotta love Keith Butler using his pieces so well, here T.J. Watt crashes inside like he’s going to split the guard and tackle, and they quickly double team him, because he’s T.J. Watt. Barron moves outside T.J. right before the snap and has a free path to the QB. You can see Murray fake the hand-off, look to his right and turn back before trying in vain to run away. The switch by Haden and Edmunds took away the quick yards (you don’t force that throw, Haden has been aggressive jumping routes) and T.J. Watt cleared the way for a sack to follow.
Take away his security blanket
Larry Fitzgerald is in the slot to the top of the screen, Mike Hilton is lined up across from him, Terrell Edmunds is behind Hilton.
Steelers are in man here again, and Hilton is blitzing. Edmunds’ job is to pick up Fitzgerald who runs a staple route for his older years, he just runs up and hits the DB then turns. He’s big and strong enough that it is effective. Edmunds was frequently matched with Fitzgerald in this game, and the future HoF WR had one of his least productive games of his season, and his career. Look at Edmunds take the contact and recover, there’s a reason they wanted Edmunds on Fitzgerald in man instead of Hilton.
Again the pass rush plays a big part of the play. This time watch Devin Bush (55) and T.J. Watt (90), and don’t ignore Hilton (28) coming off the edge.
Again Watt crashes inside, this time the guard looks to switch off, but it doesn’t matter, Bush is too fast and Murray is on the run. Hilton’s blitz occupies the TE and Murray throws the ball away. Scheming to get his fast ILBs runs at Kyle Murray was a great move by Keith Butler.
Cover your mistakes
The coverage wasn’t always good. The Cardinals offense isn’t an easy one to defend, and the defense wasn’t perfect.
Notice Mark Barron’s drop into zone and the safeties, this is cover-2 defense.
The WR’s cross in the middle of the field, and no one covers Larry Fitzgerald. Mike Hilton covers the receiver going to the top of the screen, and that results in Joe Haden, Cameron Sutton and Hilton covering the top of the screen, and Steven Nelson at the bottom of the screen all alone. It seems pretty clear to me that Hilton was supposed to be covering Fitzgerald here.
Take a look at the pass rush.
Cameron Heyward and Vince Williams are running a stunt. It’s an empty set, there’s no RB, you don’t fake this blitz and ask Vince to get back to a zone assignment. The Cardinals shift the line to the offense left and when Vince starts to cross behind Heyward he sees the RG and he knows the stunt is dead. If you look closely you can see how Heyward has his left hand on the center’s chest, he’s pulling the center with him.
The secondary screws up covering the crossing routes, Arizona perfectly countered the stunt, and Kyler Murray had a wide open Larry Fitzgerald, and missed him. It’s not just dumb luck though, look at Murray’s follow through, he turns too far on the throw, putting his back to Watt in anticipation of contact, so he’s stepping with his right foot while throwing. Even when everything else failed, T.J. Watt is left 1v1 with a tackle, and puts enough pressure on Murray to disrupt his mechanics. It’s often the Xs and Os, but sometimes it’s just T.J. Watt wrecking your play.
Benny Snell Football
The Steelers won time of possession for just the 5th time this season. It was also the Steelers 5th game with 100+ rushing yards. Benny Snell was the leading rusher in 4 of the Steeler’s 5 100+ yard games. The Cardinals attack horizontally and with the speed of their QB, and one of the key components to shutting down an offense like that is getting your defense rest between drives. Seven of the Steelers nine drives gained at least a first down, and six of those drives involved six or more plays, the highest percentage of Steelers offensive drives to have at least 6 plays of any game this year.
More important than just the success is the way the Steelers did it.
I love this run. Benny Snell just runs behind Maurkice Pouncey for 9 yards. I especially enjoy Pouncey laying a hit on the DB at the end. Knowing Snell was right behind him allows Pouncey to be aggressive and physical here without worrying about a penalty. When RBs cut and reverse direction a lot lineman have to be careful, because a really good block can turn to a hold simply by having the RB be in a different spot than you thought they were. Zach Banner, Matt Feiler and David DeCastro seal off defenders, and Pouncey plows the road clear for Snell. That’s how you beat a defense up and dominate them.
But it isn’t just Benny Snell anymore.
That’s Kerrith Whyte gaining 13 yards by utilizing his lineman well. The angles on the double team block DeCastro and Pouncey are throwing show that DeCastro is going to be able to peel off, and he does, picking up the LB and springing Whyte for the longest RB run of the game.
James Conner is far more talented as a runner than Kerrith Whyte, but when James Conner gets away from following his blockers, and gets running horizontally even he isn’t going to be productive. Whyte has had a good amount of success this season, mostly because he follows his blockers and turns his runs vertical, like he does in this play, the instant DeCastro blocks the LB.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense held the Cardinals to their second lowest yards total of the season, and forced the most turnovers the Cardinals have given up this year. They held Kyler Murray to his lowest rushing total of the year, intercepted him 3 times and sacked him 5 times.
The Steelers defense held the Cardinals to two drives of 40+ yards, and one of those ended in an interception. A Benny Snell fumble and a nightmare of a botched punt play led to 10 points. If the Steelers can avoid such costly mistakes, they should be in a position to beat the Bills and lock down a playoff spot.