Last week, we examined some terms related to the offense Steelers fans should brush up on as we head towards the season. This week, we look at the other side of the ball. Here are some of the key defensive terms and concepts all self-respecting Steelers fans should familiarize themselves with before kickoff in September. Mastery of these is not guaranteed to win you friends and influence or to make your love interest swoon. But give it a try anyway. You never know what can happen...
You hear them referenced all of the time. “Is Hargrave big enough to play the 1-tech?” Or, “Should Bud or TJ play the 9?” What does this mean?
In order to simplify the positioning of defensive linemen in regard to their offensive counterparts, former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips devised the following system: all players aligned on the outside shoulder of an offensive lineman are assigned an odd number, all head-up alignments are even and all players shaded to an OL’s inside shoulder are even with an ‘i’ after the number. This system caught on and is now widely accepted as football gospel. Thus, a nose tackle who is head-up on the center is a “0-tech” and a nose who slides to the center’s outside shoulder is a “1.” If the nose bumps over to the inside shoulder of the guard, he’s a “2i.”
The full complement of alignments are shown in the graphic below:
In the Steelers base 3-4, the nose and both DE’s commonly play head-up techs (4-0-4) to open sets (those with no tight end). To tight end sets, the Steelers predominantly play two fronts: the “Over,” where they have a 5 and a 1 tech away from the TE and a 3 and a 9 tech to him; and the “Under,” with a 5 and a 3 to the weak side and a 1, 5 and 9 to the TE. I will talk about each of these fronts in greater detail in a subsequent post.
One caveat about fronts and techniques: it’s one thing to line up in an Over or Under front but quite another to stay there. In the cat-and-mouse game that is pro football, defenses rarely sit in these traditional configurations. The amount of shifting, stemming, slanting, looping etc they do both before and after the snap is designed to keep an offense from setting their blocking schemes to a particular front. This is one of the reasons so many modern offenses use zone rather than man schemes. Blocking an area rather than a man lessens confusion and serves as a counter to defensive movement. This maneuvering in the trenches is one of the most compelling battles in the ever-evolving chess match between coaching staffs.
BUCK vs. MACK LBs
The Buck and the Mack are our two inside linebacker positions. The Buck is the bigger, thicker of the two. He is the downhill thumper who eats up lead blockers and stuffs plays at the line of scrimmage. Vince Williams plays the Buck in our base 3-4. Despite struggling at times to disengage from blocks, Williams is a physical player and is well-suited for the role.
The Mack is more of a backside flow player who looks to run to the football. He is generally lighter and more agile and a better all-around athlete. This was Ryan Shazier’s position and he was brilliant at it. Devin Bush is now destined for the Mack role and will hopefully be the next great Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker. Free agent signee Mark Barron will likely see reps at the Mack as well.
Rather than dive further into the distinctions between the two, I will simply link HERE to the most recent piece by Drop The Hammer on the Buck and the Mack. It Is a follow-up to a piece he originally wrote last off-season. Any questions you have about the two will likely be answered in his excellent piece.
The Steelers predominantly play three coverages: cover-1, cover-2 and cover-3. They play some cover-4 and some combo coverages as well, but 1, 2 and 3 are their favorites.
I wrote a detailed piece on cover-2 last off-season that you can read HERE. Cover-3 is a… actually, don’t get me started on cover-3. It’s a bad high school coverage and I cannot believe the Steelers still use it (if you’d like more on this, I’ll be happy to elaborate in the comments). Cover-1 is man-free coverage. Let’s look more closely at how it works.
In Cover-1, defenders man up against the receiver in front of them while a single-high safety patrols the sky, looking to help where needed. Man defenders stay with their receivers no matter what - whether they shift, motion, block, etc. “If he goes to the bench to get a drink,” coaches often tell DBs, “you fill the water bottle for him.”
Cover-1 is best used with pressure since it’s unrealistic to expect DBs to stay in coverage for an extended period of time. Often, teams will try to disguise their cover-1 looks so an offense can’t check into their man-beaters (generally, slants, wheels and fades or hitches, depending on the DB’s alignment). Teams like the Steelers will not play much man out of their base defense because that usually involves putting an outside backer like T.J. Watt in coverage against a running back or tight end. The Steelers would rather have Watt drop to a zone or get after the passer. So, man is better as a sub package coverage when players like Mike Hilton or Terrell Edmunds can assume those roles.
The Steelers have not traditionally been much of a man-coverage defense under Mike Tomlin. But 2017 may have changed that. According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers ran less man than any team in the league except Carolina in 2017. When they ran it, though, they allowed the league’s lowest completion percentage at 44.8. That galvanized the defensive staff to change their philosophy. Last season, the Steelers ran some form of man on 52.2% of defensive snaps, more than any team besides New England and Denver (the complete chart of man coverage percentage by team is below).
I couldn’t find numbers on how the Steelers fared in man in terms of completion percentage last season. But their 3,697 total passing yards surrendered was 10th best in the league, which bodes fairly well for their man coverage success. There is no question they’ve gotten more athletic in the secondary over the past few seasons, likely encouraging the staff to play more Cover-1. The additions of Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden are upgrades over Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Ross Cockrell. 3rd round draft pick Justin Layne played a fair amount of man at Michigan State and Edmunds seemed more comfortable in Cover-1 than Cover-2 as a rookie. This could mean even more Cover-1 for the Steelers in 2019.
Most people recognize Nickel as a package that puts five defensive backs on the field. What’s a Dime package, then? Ten defensive backs?
Actually, Dime is six. I don’t know how Dime got its name or who used it first. Presumably, it was named as such because a dime is the next monetary unit up from a nickel. Six is one more than five. You get the point. With the rapid progression of the passing game and the rules that make it harder than ever to defend the pass, I won’t be shocked if one day we actually see ten DBs on the field (San Diego used eight at times against Baltimore in their playoff win last January, so we’re not too far away). For now, though, let’s look at Dime.
Here’s a screenshot of the Steelers in a Dime package:
The obvious benefit here is the ability to play coverage with six defensive backs. Coverages can easily be switched and disguised in Dime. In the photo above, what coverage are the Steelers in? There is only one true safety but does that mean it’s cover-1? It’s hard to say. This could be a zone blitz of some sort or a masked coverage where the defense is showing one thing and rotating at the snap to another. The Steelers had great success last December disguising coverages out of the Dime against New England. Often, they showed cover-1 and rotated into cover-2 (or vice versa) in order to keep Tom Brady and the Patriot offense off-balance.
Dime, then, is not just effective because of the athletes on the field but because of what a DC can do with those athletes in coverage.
The glaring weakness of the Dime package is its susceptibility to the run. As you can see in the photo, however, it’s 3rd and 11, where a run is unlikely. If an offense does choose to run against the Dime, you hope the defenders rally down and make the tackle short of the sticks.
This season, when the Steelers go Dime, they will have a multitude of players they can employ. If it’s a three safety, three corner distribution, look for Haden, Nelson and either Artie Burns, Cam Sutton or Layne as the corners and Davis, Edmunds and Mike Hilton as the safeties (Hilton is not a true safety but he plays like one in our sub packages). The Steelers could also opt to use Barron in the Dime look, given his experience as a safety. Whatever the combination, I’d expect a fairly heavy dose of Dime from the Steelers in an attempt to get more speed on the field.
“FREE” vs. “STRONG” SAFETY
The Steelers employ two safeties in their base defense: one as the “free” safety (FS) and one as the “strong” safety ($). Here are some distinctions between the two.
The FS tends to have better range and to excel in coverage. He quarterbacks the secondary, meaning he is responsible for coverage calls, adjustments to shifts and motions and getting all of the DBs on the same page. The FS must play half the field in cover-2 and must patrol both seams in cover-3. In cover-1, he is free to help any defender locked in man. He must get enough depth to read the QB’s eyes and must be savvy enough not to get “looked off,” meaning he can’t let the QB bait him into committing too soon to one receiver before throwing to someone else. The FS should be smart, coach-able and fast.
The $ is like a smaller, quicker linebacker playing at the third level. He must run and cover but he also must be a great tackler. The $ plays much more aggressively than the FS, both by nature and by design. He is expected to fill the alley on run plays or sometimes to fit into the box for a blitzing linebacker. Sometimes he is employed as a “box safety” at the backer level, meaning he is rolled up to about five yards off the ball at the snap (check Hammer’s article for more on the role of the Box Safety). The $ will play some half-field cover-2 but in cover-3 he will be a flat defender and in cover-1 he will often check the tight end. The $ should be a versatile player who can run and hit.
In recent memory, the best Steelers safety tandem was Ryan Clark at FS and Troy Polamalu at $. Clark’s range and intelligence let Dick LeBeau use Polamalu like a Swiss Army Knife, where he wreaked havoc on opposing offenses through disguise and freakish athleticism. The current Steelers defense features Sean Davis at FS and Terrell Edmunds at $. Both are talented and athletic and have the potential to be very good. But they need more reps together to get their communication down and they must continue to improve as tacklers and in coverage. My suspicion is the Steelers defense will go as they go - forward, backwards or stuck in place.
When Dick LeBeau was the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, the Steelers were renown for their array of fire-zone stunts. These involved linebackers and second-level players blitzing from various alignments while the secondary played a disguised zone coverage behind it. The most popular of these was the “Fire-X” where both the Mack and the Buck worked a well-timed gap exchange with the nose tackle that often resulted in one of the backers coming free.
Since taking over as DC, Keith Butler has used less of these fire-zones. The Steelers still blitz but often these are overload blitzes that create two-on-one or three-on-two matchup advantages in the pass rush. Increasingly, they have attempted to get pressure from their front without blitzing. One way they’ve done this is by using line twists to free a first-level defender to the quarterback.
A line twist involves defensive linemen crashing, looping and otherwise exchanging gaps in an effort to confuse offensive linemen in their pass blocking responsibilities. Line twists work best against man protections where OL are assigned a single defender than against slide protections where OL block an area. The twisting and looping can force two linemen in a man-blocking scheme to move to the same gap, thereby voiding an adjacent one.
In the GIF below, from 2017, we see the Steelers execute a line twist against Cincinnati. The Steelers are in a Dime package with two DL and two linebackers at the line of scrimmage. On the left side of the ball, DT Tyson Alualu rips hard into the B-gap, forcing the guard to block out on him. OLB Bud Dupree starts on an outside rush into the C-gap, then plants and redirects inside, “twisting” under Alualu.
On the other side of the football, Cam Heyward bull-rushes the guard. The center, who checks initially for a blitz from the inside backer, helps on Heyward when the backer doesn’t show. This leaves the left A-gap wide open for Dupree, who bursts through to sack the quarterback.
This stunt works for several reasons. Alualu and Heyward both get a good push and displace the guards enough for Dupree to get downhill. Dupree, for his part, times the twist well. If he shows too early the center will see him and pick him up. Instead, Dupree delays enough to induce the center to work back on Heyward. The offensive tackle assigned to Dupree tries to trade off with the guard once he sees Dupree go inside. But Alualu has turned the guard’s shoulders with his aggressive charge and the guard cannot redirect onto Dupree. It’s a very well-executed stunt.
There are dozens of varieties of these types of twists. Some involve players looping two and even three gaps. To run them, you must have quick guys to be the “loopers”, which the Steelers do in Dupree, TJ Watt and Anthony Chickillo, and aggressive guys like Heyward, Alualu, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt to penetrate. The beauty of these stunts is the ability to create pressure without having to sacrifice a coverage player, thus allowing seven players to defend the pass. The Steelers tied Kansas City with a league high 52 sacks last season. Line twists like the one above were a big reason why.
There you have it. Half a dozen terms and concepts to study over the summer so you can talk some real defense once the Steelers kick off in September. Drop these into conversation out on the boat or around the barbecue. You might not be a literal genius but once you dazzle the common folk with talk of Box Safeties and 5-techniques you’ll certainly sound like one.