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There are plenty of reasons why everyone is talking about the Steelers’ secondary

Looking at the Steelers coverage schemes and why they are drawing attention.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been working on a Terrell Edmunds film room for weeks now. It’s not an easy breakdown to do because his value is heavily determined by the coverage schemes the Steelers use, and the role Edmunds plays in them.

Fortunately, this week, I gained some help from outside sources. On Wednesday, Dec. 12th, Brett Kollmann dropped a video about Minkah Fitzpatrick, and the next day Football Outsiders film room did a piece on the Steelers defense that covered the secondary quite a bit. Both pieces do a great job of covering things that I wanted to cover, and neither require a membership or paying anything. For this film room I want to dialogue with those pieces instead of just adding my own version of the same information. While I would suggest you check out both, I’ll try to make it all make sense if you choose not to.

I’ll start with Brett Kollmann’s video on Minkah Fitzpatrick. (<-link) Go ahead and watch it now if you want (~20 minute video, but really good).

Terrell Edmunds is the Ryan Clark to Minkah Fitzpatrick’s Troy Polamalu

Terrell Edmunds had a tough rookie year. It’s pretty well known that when Steelers add a safety that safety usually struggles their first season in the system. Terrell Edmunds started every game of his rookie season, played the second most snaps on defense, and tied Ramon Foster and Allejandro Villenueva with 1189 total snaps, a three-way tie for first place.

As we go through the film and outside resources I want you to remember that Edmunds played with Sean Davis, and had to support Vince Williams, Jon Bostic, and the outside LBs that were dropping into coverage. That’s a rough job for a rookie, but it was good preparation for his second season, and supporting Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Brett Kollman does a great job showing that Minkah Fitzpatrick liked to play more shallow than most FSs, and that he also freelances a good bit. Edmunds is the guy most commonly tasked with taking the deep responsibilities and making sure the Steelers don’t get burned deep.

Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety towards the bottom of the screen.

The play starts with 2-deep safeties in a zone defense (for the most part). When Odell Beckham Jr. gets past Vince Williams he throws his arm up as he runs into the gap between the deep safeties. But he isn't’ as open as he thinks, because Terrell Edmunds picks him up and covers him through the end of the play. If you watch Minkah Fitzpatrick (the other deep safety) you can see his reaction to Baker Mayfield scrambling as he drops shorter to help cover any trows to the sideline. Baker Mayfield throws the ball to Beckham Jr., but Edmunds has made the window really small and Mayfield throws it over everyone and out the back of the endzone.

This play stands out for another reason. The Steelers are defending this empty set with their 3-4 defense package. T.J. Watt is in coverage in the endzone at the end of the play, as is Vince Williams. The Browns went empty set with Odell Bekham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt and two tight ends. The idea worked, as it got Odell Beckham Jr. matched up with Vince Williams. This is why I talk about Terrell Edmunds being a mismatch eraser, because when Beckham Jr. gets past Williams, Edmunds carries the assignment the rest of the way and nothing comes of it.

Lastly this play shows the match-zone principles Kollmann talks about the Steelers running, with Edmunds side of the field playing zone and Fitzpatrick’s side running match zone. That’s how they usually divide it up, as it lets Fitzpatrick read the play and attack instead of being concerned about zone responsibility.

Covering for blitzers

Football Outsiders Film Room (<-link) talks a lot about how the Steelers blitz their slot, or “apex” position player. When they do this it is mostly Terrell Edmunds covering their assignment.

Mike Hilton is the slot corner to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds lines up behind him.

While Edmunds picks up the slot receiver Hilton rushes and ends up getting his only sack of the season so far. If you’ve been reading my other film rooms you may remember several sacks where Hilton or Mark Barron take up a blocker that would have been able to help block another rusher. The important step is adding a rusher that throws off the blocking scheme and creates an opening for someone to make a play. Edmunds’ ability to man cover anyone from George Kittle, DK Metcalf, Jarvis Landry or Keenan Allen enables the Steelers to send that extra attacker without creating too much risk of a big play.

It’s not just Minkah and blitzers. . .

Take a look at Joe Haden’s big interception that ended the Cardinals long 3rd quarter drive.

Haden is at the top of the screen, Edmunds is the deep safety to that side.

Joe Haden jumps the route as soon as he sees it is an out route, and Edmunds is running to cover the outside receiver as soon as Haden takes off. That’s good communication before the play allowing Haden to make an interception while minimizing the risk of a big play if Murray doesn’t throw to the out route.

Did you notice the defensive scheme? It’s a match-zone cover-2. You can tell it isn’t just a normal cover-2 because there’s no defender dropping into the deep middle to protect the gap between the safeties.

Putting it all together

It gets really fun when Keith Butler starts getting creative.

In this play Mark Barron is the ILB to the top of the screen, he will loop outside past the slot receiver.

This play starts out looking like the cover-6 match zone that Kollmann shows in his film room (he attributes it as a Minkah Fitzpatrick creation, but that’s just Kollmann’s hyperbole) but then Barron loops outside and rushes while Joe Haden is in man on the outside. The wide side is match zone in front of Minkah Fitzpatrick, but while Edmunds’ side looks like it’s going to be a cover-2 zone style scheme it’s man with a blitzing Barron. When Baker sees Barron blitzing he takes the bait and throws to Kareem Hunt, but Edmunds is there to stop it for no gain. This play was in the 4th quarter, 2nd and 10 after the awful interception, a third down sack would push the Browns out of field goal range. On this play every yard mattered and Butler trusted Edmunds to make the play, and he did.

This next play is one of my favorites from the win over Cleveland. Terrell Edmunds is to the top of the screen by the number 30, Mike Hilton is moving to line up over the slot.

This is such a beautiful play. Edmunds lines up deep over the slot first, then as Hilton is getting into his spot you can see the right tackle pointing out Hilton. You also see Baker Mayfield start stomping his foot to try and get the snap off quick. The Browns see the slot blitz coming and Mayfield wants to get the ball snapped and hit his hot receiver for an easy gain. But when the snap comes there’s no blitz, no wide open hot receiver, and Baker Mayfield is already outside his progression and timing, and Bud Dupree is pressuring him. This play was 3rd and 7, first Cleveland drive of the 4th quarter to force a punt.

I plan to do a more personal look at Terrell Edmunds, but first I needed to cover how this defense uses Edmunds as the safety valve for a lot of the gambles and aggressive plays that we love to see. Terrell Edmunds may not be making a lot of splash plays, but he is the guy keeping the damage to a minimum when the gambles don’t work, and because of the versatility he has Keith Butler can do a lot of stuff that makes life miserable for opposing teams.

Preparing to face off against Buffalo it is important to note that the biggest difference between Buffalo and Arizona’s offense is Josh Allen has the 6th highest average intended air yards (how far his target is downfield when he throws them the ball) in the NFL, while Kyler Murray ranks 32nd. (37 passers qualified)

The only QB who throws farther downfield more than Allen that the Steelers have faced this season is Russell Wilson, and that game was before Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team. This week should be an interesting test for the Steelers defense.