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The Steelers’ pass rush highlights a stellar defensive effort against the Browns

The Pittsburgh Steelers are winning with defense, and it all starts with their tremendous pass rush.

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

Despite a slew of injuries to key players, a host of sloppy pre-snap penalties and an inept officiating crew that botched a pair of late calls against the Steelers, the home team turned back the Browns at Heinz Field on Sunday to earn a victory that was critical to their playoff hopes.

While well-deserved praise was heaped upon Devlin “Duck” Hodges, the undrafted free agent-turned starting QB who made enough plays to give the Steelers a chance to win, the real heroes of the afternoon once again patrolled the defensive side of the football. The Steelers held a Cleveland offense teeming with talent to 13 points, 279 total yards and just four third down conversions on a dozen tries. They also forced a pair of turnovers, including Joe Haden’s game-sealing interception with just over a minute to play. The key to the defensive effort, however, was five sacks and a host of hits and pressures that left Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield bruised, battered, and most importantly, out of rhythm by game’s end. It was another stellar effort by the front seven, who continue to play as one of the league’s elite units.

Let’s examine the pass rush from Sunday’s game and look at how, specifically, the Steelers disrupted the Cleveland passing game with their pressure.

2nd and 6, ball on Pitt 7, 8:24 1st qtr

The Browns scripted a nice opening possession, moving the ball from their own 25 to the Steelers’ 7 yard line. It was an effective drive that mixed the run and the pass and took advantage of some sloppy tackling by the Steelers.

From the 7, Cleveland faced a 2nd and 6. They came out in an empty set and the Steelers countered by playing cover-1 with free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick reading Mayfield’s eyes from center field. The pre-snap picture looked like this:

The Steelers like to pressure empty formations and this was no exception. The crudely-drawn arrow in the photo indicates strong safety Terrell Edmunds, who came on a B-gap blitz between the right guard and tackle. Linebacker Devin Bush and slot corner Mike Hilton played a combo coverage on the tight end and receiver in the left slot while linebacker Mark Barron (lined up beside Edmunds) and corners Haden and Steven Nelson locked up on their respective receivers. Here’s how the play unfolded:

Cleveland did a nice job picking up the stunt. They “pushed” the protection, meaning the center worked out on the slanting defensive tackle (Tyson Alualu, #94) while the guard kicked out to block Edmunds. The problem for Cleveland was that right tackle Chris Hubbard (#74) was tasked with blocking TJ Watt one-on-one. This matchup was over quickly as Watt swatted Hubbard’s outside arm away, hugged the corner like a sports car and dropped Mayfield for the sack.

Watt got an assist from Cam Heyward (#97), who compressed the pocket with a good bull rush and then got his big left arm in the air, forcing Mayfield to hold the football. It looks like Mayfield was targeting Jarvis Landry (#80), who ran an in cut from the left slot at the goal line. But Hilton and Bush bracketed Landry and Mayfield didn’t have time to reset and find another target (good thing too, because no one picked up tight end Stephen Carlson, who ran straight past Hilton and Bush to the back of the end zone).

Veteran BTSC readers will cringe over the fact defensive coordinator Keith Butler chose to lock Barron on Odell Beckham Jr. in the right slot here. Butler is not immune to putting a linebacker on a wide receiver, often to disastrous consequences. To be fair, with Beckham in one slot and Landry in the other, the Browns had the ability to create a mismatch one way or another. Watt rewarded Butler for his gamble, however, as the sack forced a long third down the Browns could not convert and the drive ended with a field goal. All in all, a 13 play possession that consumed half the first quarter yielded just three points for Cleveland. Watt’s timely sack produced a win for the Steelers.

2nd and 20, ball on Pitt 48, 5:00 3rd qtr

The Steelers led 17-10 when Cleveland mounted a drive into Pittsburgh territory midway through the 3rd quarter. A holding penalty on Hubbard pushed the ball back towards midfield, where Cleveland faced a 2nd and 20. The Browns aligned in a compressed 2x2 formation, then motioned Landry across to a 3x1 look.

The Steelers, in Dime personnel, lined up in a straight cover-2 look but rotated into a robber coverage with the motion. This allowed Fitzpatrick to sit on any intermediate route from the trips while Edmunds and Cam Sutton played the deep halves. The Browns ran a flat-vertical concept with Landry and Beckham while KhaDarel Hodge ran up the seam. The Steelers were in the perfect coverage to defend this combo, as Hilton took Landry in the flat, Nelson ran up the sideline with Beckham (with help over top from Edmunds) and Fitzpatrick locked onto Hodge. There was nowhere for Mayfield to go with the football.

Not that he noticed. Watch how quickly Mayfield got his eyes onto the pass rush. Specifically, on Bud Dupree. Dupree used a lightning-quick spin move to beat tackle Justin McCray inside, forcing Mayfield to bail from the pocket. Mayfield could have escaped to his right, where Watt lost contain after being chipped inside by running back Nick Chubb. Had he done so, he likely would have turned the play into a dangerous scramble where he could have made something happen. Instead, he bailed to his left, where Dupree, Vince Williams and Watt all got shots at him before Dupree knocked the ball loose and Heyward recovered. It was a great hustle play by the Steelers and a bit of a panic move by Mayfield. Given the fact Mayfield had already taken a big shot to the ribs from Watt and smashed his throwing hand on Dupree’s helmet, a little panic on his part seemed appropriate.

As for Dupree, the spin is generally the least effective of all pass rush moves, as any OL who can stay balanced, move his feet and punch with his hands can easily re-position himself once a defender wheels and turns his back to the block. Fortunately, McCray did none of those things here. He was off-balance (look at the stagger in his feet), did not use his hands at all and was comically unathletic trying to block someone once the play broke down. Dupree can’t make a living like this because NFL tackles are generally too good. He has, however, greatly expanded his repertoire of pass rush moves this year, and against a career backup like McCray, who was filling in for the injured Greg Robinson, the spin move proved effective.

3rd and 10, ball on Pitt 30, 6:30 4th qtr

The teams had traded field goals by the time Hodges threw an awful interception to open a Steelers’ drive midway through the 4th quarter (the pick may not have been Hodges’ fault; clearly he and receiver Diontae Johnson miscommunicated on the play). Cleveland took possession at the Pittsburgh 30 with a chance to tie the game. Mayfield threw incomplete on 1st down, then dumped the ball to Kareem Hunt who was taken down for no gain on a nice open-field tackle by Edmunds. That set up 3rd and 10 with the Browns just inside of field goal range.

They put Hunt and Chubb in the backfield to provide the illusion of max pass protection. The Steelers played 2-4-5 and again scrambled the coverage (watch Cam Sutton bail from his position in the left slot to a deep third while Barron, lined up over the center, sprints to the flat to cover Hunt out of the backfield). With Hilton bailing out of the opposite slot, this was another robber look as Fitzpatrick came down from the sky to cover Landry on the crossing route. The rotation looked like this:

Fitzpatrick came from the sky to fill the void in the middle of the field.

The coverage disguises were nice but I’m not sure they mattered. Why? Because of how quickly the Steelers again got to Mayfield. This time it was Javon Hargrave (79), lined up over right guard Wyatt Teller. Hargrave just embarrassed Teller with a combination of speed and strength that allowed him to go straight through the B-gap, using only leverage (watch him dip his right shoulder to get under Teller’s pads) and the fact Mayfield had no easy escape route to haul down the quarterback. Mayfield wasn’t helped by the play design, which involved a worthless ball fake that no one was buying on 3rd and 10 and served no purpose other than to slightly delay his drop. Chubb failed to chip Hargrave, too, as he was more interested in slipping into the flat as a potential receiving option. The result was a huge sack that pushed the Browns out of field goal range and forced a punt.

2nd and 5, ball on Cleve 40, 1:18 4th qtr

We can see the effect the pass rush had even on plays where Mayfield wasn’t sacked. Take Haden’s interception that sealed the win, for example.

The Browns, needing a touchdown to tie, had a 2nd and 5 on their own 40 with 1:18 remaining. With no timeouts, they were playing at hurry-up tempo. They didn’t need to panic but they did have to push the ball down the field a bit. The Steelers, in a 2-3-6 Dime look, played four-under/three-deep and rushed four.

The play started badly for Mayfield when he slightly bobbled the snap. This wasn’t an egregious mistake but it did throw off his rhythm a hair. The bobble may have been a product of Mayfield having his eyes on his receivers, on the coverage or on the rush. Or it may have simply been a mechanical error as he transferred his weight and brought the football up into the cradle position. Whatever the culprit, it likely affected his timing in the same way a jump-shooter who doesn’t catch and shoot in perfect rhythm is usually slightly off.

Once he did get set, the pass rush closed in quickly. Hargrave used the same power rush into the B-gap he did on the previous series. Odds are, as he flashed through Mayfield’s line of vision, the QB realized he had to get the ball out fast. The problem for Mayfield was he needed another beat to let Landry, his intended receiver, clear Minkah Fitzpatrick, whose underneath coverage was perfectly in line with Landry’s route at the time Mayfield released the throw. The drop Fitzpatrick took here is yet another example of how valuable he is to this Steelers’ defense. A lesser player would have likely glued his eyes on Mayfield and lost track of Landry. Fitzpatrick managed to “keep his head on a swivel” as coaches like to say, allowing him to slide perfectly into the throwing lane and disrupting the rhythm of the throw.

Mayfield found himself in trouble one way or another. He could hold the ball and let Landry clear Fitzpatrick, but having been sacked five times already, and with Hargrave bearing down again, he was not exactly patient in the pocket. Or, he could put the ball on the money to Landry, in which case it was likely to get picked by Fitzpatrick.

Influenced by all of these variables, Mayfield wound up throwing behind Landry, where Haden, playing his deep third, converged on the errant throw and made a great catch for the interception. Game, set and match.

Of the Steelers’ five sacks for the game, each featured a different player and/or technique. Watt got his with great hand placement and an expert bend. Dupree employed a nifty spin move to beat an inferior pass protector. Hargrave’s was a brilliant combination of speed, power and leverage. Cam Sutton got credit for a sack on a play where he acted as a spy and the Steelers used an amoeba look to flush Mayfield from the pocket. And Dupree and Heyward teamed up for one where they utilized a twist stunt with Heyward pushing out to the C-gap and Dupree coming under him into B. Five sacks, five different looks or techniques.

Cleveland contributed to their own protection woes by stubbornly (stupidly?) refusing to help their linemen with a tight end or back. When they did help, it was an unenthusiastic effort. The running backs in particular proved ineffective, half-heartedly chipping at rushers before releasing into the pattern. They seemed to want little to do with engaging the Steelers’ defenders. Still, the results on Sunday were more about good pass rushing than bad pass protection. With 43 sacks on the season now, good for 3rd in the league, this is a defense that is proving it can get to the quarterback in a variety of ways.

The Steelers will need the pass rush to remain effective as they head into the final quarter of the season. Next week, at Arizona, they face the elusive Kyler Murray. Expect Keith Butler to summon a multitude of coverage disguises and games with his pass-rushers designed to confuse the young quarterback. The Steelers must get Murray to mistrust his eyes, hold onto the football, and most importantly, keep him in the pocket. If they can do so, this stellar defense might just carry them to yet another victory in this most improbable of seasons.