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Getting after the Quarterback: A long-standing tradition with the Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have built a defense based around getting after the QB, and that hasn’t changed heading into 2019.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers

I’ve been writing about the Steelers offense for most of the summer. Now, with training camp upon us, it’s time to turn our attention to the other side of the ball.

I became a Steelers fan because of Jack Lambert. He and Donnie Shell were my favorite players as a kid. Later, I loved guys like Rod Woodson and Hardy Nickerson and then, of course, the entire Blitzburgh defense in the 90s. It wasn’t until Hines Ward came along that I even considered an offensive player as my favorite Pittsburgh Steeler. I like to write and talk about offense because I find the schemes compelling and I like how the offensive game is evolving. As a fan of the Steelers, however, defense has always come first.

One reason I love defense in Pittsburgh is that, for most of my life, the Steelers have been great at getting after the quarterback. Nothing ruins an offensive game-plan like a rattled QB. It would be an understatement to say the Steelers have rattled their fair share over the years. Whether it was the Steel Curtain assaulting the likes of Brian Sipe and Dan Pastorini, the lethal Greg Lloyd/Kevin Greene combo or the array of zone blitzes Dick LeBeau crafted, sacking the quarterback is as Pittsburgh as… as… IC Light? French fries on sandwiches? I don’t know, actually. I live at the beach in New Jersey. Western PA - help me out!

2018 represented another chapter in this tradition. The Steelers tied Kansas City for the league lead with 52 sacks last season. To begin our summer look at the defense, let’s examine those sacks. How did the Steelers get to the quarterback in 2018? What groups did they use? How often did they bring pressure? What were their favorite twists and stunts? And, looking ahead, what can we expect from the defense as a pass rushing unit in 2019?

First, the raw data. Here is a breakdown of the personnel groups the Steelers used to generate those 52 sacks. Without the benefit of an All-22 view, I can’t say for certain how many linebackers and defensive backs were on the field for each one. I can, however, identify the number of defensive linemen. So, to simplify:

2 DL groups (2-4-5, 2-3-6): 37 sacks

3 DL groups (3-4-4, 3-3-5): 15 sacks

We still talk about the Steelers as a base 3-4 defense but as you can see from the numbers, more than 70% of their sacks last season came from personnel packages that featured just two down linemen. In passing situations, the Steelers commonly removed an interior player for an extra defensive back. However, they played more of their so-called “base” downs (those where the offense might run or pass) in these two-DL packages as well. The two DL looks are no longer just pressure packages anymore. To combat the speed that offenses are putting on the field, the Steelers are responding with more speed of their own.

Next, let’s look at the number of rushers they brought on each sack:

3-man rush: 2 sacks

4-man rush: 31 sacks

5-man rush: 12 sacks

6-man rush: 7 sacks

The most encouraging of these numbers are the 31 sacks they recorded while bringing four rushers. This shows the Steelers did a nice job getting to the quarterback while still dropping seven in coverage. Their favorite four-man pressure was to either bring two DL and two LBs or, with three DL on the field, to drop one of the OLBs and bring the other. When they rushed four they often used line twists to generate pressure or they relied on one of their rushers to simply beat an offensive player to the quarterback.

Their five and six man pressure packages, which resulted in 19 of the 52 sacks, were usually a combination of edge blitzes from outside backers, slot corners and box safeties with an additional rusher (often Vince Williams) coming up the gut. The Steelers are no longer Blitzburgh and these stunts aren’t nearly as exotic as they were in the 90s or the Polamalu era. But Keith Butler did a nice job picking his spots with them.

Finally, there is the nature of each sack to be considered. This is not an exact science and is certainly subjective, but I tried to break each sack down into a category that defined its success. Was the sack a product of a blitz or pressure, of great coverage, of individual effort or of something else? Here’s what I found:

Coverage Sacks: 17

Pressure Sacks: 17

“Effort” Sacks: 15

Gifts: 3

Coverage sacks were defined as those where the quarterback held the ball for at least four seconds before being contacted. Pressure sacks were those generated by a line twist or a blitz of some sort. Effort sacks were those where an individual player just beat his man to the quarterback before the QB could reasonably make a play. As for gifts, these were three examples I found where an offensive line simply blew an assignment or a protection call. Thank you, Cleveland.

The surprising takeaway from this breakdown is that coverage was as responsible as pressure for the largest number of sacks. The Steelers secondary has received its share of criticism around these parts, much of it justified, but the numbers say some credit should be shared as well. 17 sacks as the result of a quarterback having to hold the football for at least four seconds suggests solid secondary execution, especially when you consider the quality of quarterback play the Steelers faced last season (Brees, Brady, Mahomes, Ryan, Newton, Rivers, etc).

Now that we have an idea how the Steelers got to the QB, let’s take a look at why some of these schemes and packages worked.

Coverage Sacks

As mentioned above, coverage and pressure were the most common reasons the Steelers produced sacks last season. There is no established rule for what constitutes a coverage sack but most offensive coaches expect a quarterback to release the football in under three seconds. When they don’t, bad things often happen. For example, of Ben Roethlisberger’s 24 times sacked last season, he was contacted on average at 3.48 seconds after the ball was snapped. Therefore, the four second count I used to determine a so-called “coverage” sack is actually a bit high (Roethlisberger, by the way, led the league in quickest average time to throw in 2018 at 2.38 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus).

Often, when the Steelers generated a coverage sack, it was the product of good disguise. In the GIF below, we see one of the few sacks the Steelers recorded from a three-man rush. It’s from the game in Oakland, where the Raiders have a 1st and 15 from deep in their own territory in the 1st quarter. The Steelers, although likely anticipating a pass, leave their base personnel on the field. Oakland counters with an empty set from 10 personnel.

The Steelers, who, like many teams, have a tendency to pressure empty formations, walk five players to the line, giving quarterback Derek Carr a pre-snap blitz read. We know Carr is anticipating the blitz because upon receiving the snap he looks immediately to his left to a quick out from his slot receiver. This is a good choice by Carr because he knows the wide receiver to that side is running a takeoff route that will remove the corner from the area. With OLB Bud Dupree walked up and likely coming, there will be no one to cover the flat.

Dupree, however, drops off at the snap and takes the flat throw away. Now Carr must come off of that read and find another. He looks to the middle of the field, where his tight end is running an OTB route (Over-the-Ball) at the 20 yard line. One problem: linebacker Jon Bostic has also dropped from the line and has undercut the tight end. With both of his “hot” routes covered, Carr now must re-set and wait for something to open up down the field. QBs tend to get unsettled once they move to a third read, as the clock in their head tells them the rush is approaching. This is true of Carr, who spies DE Stephon Tuitt closing in and immediately bails. Carr is no Lamar Jackson. He does not escape.

Despite a good deal of criticism on this site about the Steelers failure to mask their coverages last season, I found that many of these coverage-type sacks were in fact a product of creative disguise. The Steelers ran an array of disguises in 2018, many of them effective in forcing QBs to either eat the football, throw it away or abandon the pocket. One game where these disguises were noticeably absent was the second-half meltdown loss to Los Angeles, where the Chargers’ extensive use of Trips formations and their insertion of wide receiver Keenan Allen into the tight slot position forced Keith Butler into vanilla looks and mismatches the Chargers exploited. No doubt Butler spent some time this off-season preparing to combat those looks.

Pressure sacks

The Steelers used two types of pressures to get to the quarterback: four-man games that involved twists and stunts along the defensive line and five and six-man games involving blitzes from the second level. Here is an example of the former:

In this GIF, vs. the Ravens at Heinz Field, the Steelers used a twist stunt to generate pressure from a four-man rush. To the top of the formation, Stephon Tuitt slanted from the left to the right A-gap, causing Baltimore’s right guard to pass him off to the center. Cam Heyward took a wide B-gap charge, drawing the guard out with him. Bud Dupree, meanwhile, started on an edge rush outside the left tackle before looping inside. With the center on Tuitt and the guard hung up on Heyward, there was no one in the B-gap to block Dupree, who swooped in on Joe Flacco for the sack.

To block this correctly, Baltimore’s left guard and tackle needed to trade off on Heyward and Dupree. But Heyward is so strong that his push drove the guard deep enough into the backfield where he couldn’t disengage quickly enough to make the switch. The raw strength of the Steelers interior linemen — Heyward, Tuitt, Javon Hargrave and Tyson Alualu, make these twist stunts difficult to combat because of their ability to penetrate and occupy blockers.

When the Steelers want to bring five or even six rushers, they add a player or two from the second level. Below we see an example from last season’s 41-17 win over Atlanta.

On this play, the Steelers are in 2-4-5 personnel with slot corner Mike Hilton in for Hargrave. It’s 1st and 10 but with Atlanta trailing by 17 late in the 3rd quarter, the Steelers are anticipating a pass. Hilton creeps down late and comes off of the edge to join Watt, Tuitt, Heyward and Dupree in a fairly standard five-man pressure while the Steelers appear to play cover-1 behind it.

Here’s what makes this pressure interesting: the Falcons have six to block the five Steeler pass rushers, with the running back (#26) free to pick up an inside blitz or help on the edge. When neither Jon Bostic nor Tyler Matakevich show from the inside, the back helps his left tackle double the edge on Dupree. Bostic, however, who is assigned to cover the back, recognizes he is staying in to block. This prompts him to come on a delayed blitz, and when the pressure forces quarterback Matt Ryan to step up in the pocket, Bostic takes him down.

This “either/or” read by Bostic is a creative way to add late pressure to a stunt. Either the back releases, in which case Bostic covers him and the Steelers get five-on-five in the pass rush, or the back stays in to protect, in which case Bostic comes late to make it six-on-six. This blitz is not exotic in that it doesn’t feature players looping and twisting or coming from half a field away like Polamalu used to do. It’s effective though, especially against a veteran quarterback who is more likely to step up in the pocket than to try to flee to the edge.

Individual Effort

For all of the scheming coaches do, sometimes it’s nice to simply rely on your players to win one-on-one battles and make plays. The Steelers have some guys who can do that up front.

Here is a great example of what I was talking about earlier regarding the strength of their interior linemen. Watch Heyward and Javon Hargrave simply annihilate the Denver front. Quarterback Case Keenum barely sets his feet after receiving the shotgun snap when he’s rammed by his center, whom Heyward has shoved back into him as though he’s driving a pee wee blocking sled. Keenum spins out, only to get knocked down by Hargrave, who has treated his Bronco counterpart with equal malice. By my count Tuitt and Hargrave arrive at Keenum less than two seconds from when he touches the football. Good luck to any QB with that.

As powerful as those two are, no player on the Steeler defense was responsible for more sacks based on individual effort than TJ Watt. Watt, by my count, recorded six of his team-high thirteen sacks in 2018 by simply whipping the player assigned to block him. Usually these plays gave the quarterback no chance to unload the football before Watt arrived. Several of them resulted in fumbles.

The play below does not showcase one of Watt’s more dominant efforts. New England’s right tackle here is actually expecting more help from the back — at the very least, a chip to slow Watt down before he releases into the flat — but the back (I believe it’s Sony Michel) barely makes contact with Watt, allowing TJ to turn the edge and bring down Tom Brady. You can tell the tackle expects help because of the way he flattens out on his third kick step and turns toward Watt to seal him off. That technique only works if someone is blunting the pass rusher’s upfield charge. If not, the rusher will go right around the blocker once he redirects, as Watt does here. Still, it’s a great get-off by TJ and a good example of how his combination of speed, power and leverage allow him to be an effective edge rusher.

The real reason I included this clip is because it showcases a creative twist by the Steelers on the other side of the football. Often called a “Long Stick,” this pressure involves the edge player, in this instance Anthony Chickillo, working down towards the center while the B-gap player on the opposite side of the football (Tuitt) loops all the way around to replace Chickillo. The idea here is to get the left tackle to come down with Chickillo, thereby collapsing the entire left side of the New England line and shortening the edge for Tuitt, while Watt’s hard charge from the left is meant to flush Brady into him.

The “long stick” is not executed particularly well — Chickillo does not get enough penetration to shorten the edge for Tuitt, and the left tackle does a nice job passing Chickillo off and redirecting — but Watt’s effort makes it a moot point. I used this clip because it shows how creative the Steelers are forced to get to put pressure on Tom Brady. In their previous five meetings, the Steelers sacked Brady a total of six times. The long stick is not something I’ve seen from them before. Likely, they kept it in their pocket in hopes it might take New England by surprise since they hadn’t yet put it on film.

Gifts

So, to recap, the Steelers used pressure to get sacks in 2018, and they used great coverage, and they used tremendous individual effort. And sometimes, as we see below, they simply got a gift:

That’s rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield failing to change the protection call to account for a blitz into Cleveland’s trips look. The line executes a full slide to the left while the back swings out to the left as well. The result is there is no one to block Watt coming off of the right edge. Mayfield needed to keep the back in and have him seal that edge, or use a four-man slide protection, lock the right tackle on Watt and have the back block Bostic. It looks like Mayfield intends to throw hot to the slide route to the trips. But with no one putting a body on TJ, that throw is near impossible.

I only counted three such sacks where the Steelers clearly benefitted from a botched protection call. Two involved the Browns. Mayfield will likely learn to recognize and adjust protections as he matures. Or maybe he won’t. Here’s to hoping for the latter.

How Will the Steelers Generate Pressure in 2019?

In the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” department, I would expect more of the same, with the inevitable wrinkles to scheme and use of new personnel. The latter is more intriguing here, since we have no idea what tweaks and adjustments Butler might make to his pressure packages.

New additions Mark Barron (free agency) and Devin Bush (draft) are fast linebackers with great blitzing potential. Vince Williams has shown himself to be an effective blitzer the past few seasons, but should Williams come off of the field in passing situations, either Bush or Barron could reasonably be expected to fill his role.

Also intriguing is an expanded role for Terrell Edmunds as a blitzer from the box safety position. Edmunds recorded one sack in 2018, a chase-down of Philip Rivers. On the play, Edmunds was rolled down into the box and assigned to cover the tight end. Once the TE stayed in to block, Edmunds burst in from the second level and ran down a fleeing Rivers for a ten yard loss. Edmunds showed tremendous burst on the play and could be effective as a delayed blitzer or coming from the edge ala Mike Hilton. Stay tuned to see how Butler employs the newest tools in his blitzing arsenal.

However things play out, expect a fast, aggressive Steelers defense committed to pressuring opposing quarterbacks in 2019. If past is prologue, the long-standing tradition of getting after the quarterback in Pittsburgh should live on.