As I write this, the captain has just informed us that we are cruising at thirty-two thousand feet somewhere over Nebraska. From my view out the window, the landscape below is a sea of green sectioned into neatly organized squares and rectangles. It’s a beautiful bit of geographic geometry.
I am flying home after an amazing week with the family at Yosemite. For those of you who haven’t been, I strongly recommend putting it on your bucket list. I had seen plenty of Yosemite images in books and documentaries but the majesty of it up close is something to behold. It’s so stunning that it feels surreal.
The Boeing 757 jet I’m currently wedged into is short on comforts. It does, however, come with a small television set built into the headrest of the seat in front of me. I’m watching ESPN, where the crawl at the bottom of the screen just announced that Antonio Brown is threatening to quit over a helmet grievance. I have no idea what that means but it made me chuckle. Namaste, Steelers Nation. Namaste.
Gloriously, the airline’s cable package also includes the NFL Network, where momentarily the Steelers will kick off the pre-season against Tampa Bay. I should get to watch most of it before our plane lands. I’ll watch the rest on the DVR at home.
I realize by the time this story runs there will have already been a good amount of discussion about how the rookies looked and how the quarterbacks played. I will stay away from those types of evaluations. Instead, I will focus on the coaching staff. What personnel groups are they using on offense or sub-packages on defense? What concepts or schemes are they working on? This is week one of pre-season so the X and O’s will be pretty vanilla. Still, they will give us a window into how we might operate down the road.
Here, then, are my observations for pre-season game number one:
- First drive for Tampa. They go to a tried-and-true early season move and run a heavy dose of 12 personnel with unbalanced sets. That’s the “we’re going to pound the rock and establish our toughness” move by old friend Bruce Arians. The Steelers counter with their base 3-4 and roll Terrell Edmunds down as an 8th box defender. Standard operating procedure.
- When the Bucs switch to 11 personnel, the Steelers counter with their 2-4-5. Dan McCullers out, Mike Hilton in. Hilton blitzes right away and they play cover-1 behind it.
- FWIW, the TV broadcast just showed a graphic introducing the Steelers starting defense and they had 12 guys up there in a 3-4-5 configuration. Congrats to Keith Butler for figuring out how to get an extra player on the field.
- It’s a thirteen-play touchdown drive for the Bucs. The Steelers go 3-4 versus every 12p set and 2-4-5 whenever Tampa is in 11. Lots of cover-1, which is tough on rookie corner Justin Layne. The Bucs pick on him.
- Steelers first possession. They go no-huddle and hit James Washington for a big gain. Then it’s back-to-back play-action passes with some pocket movement by Josh Dobbs. Interesting opening for the offense. Randy Fichtner is scripting to Dobbs’ strengths (deep ball, deception/mobility) whereas BA targeted our weaknesses by using heavy personnel against our backup DL and throwing at Layne. That’s the difference between having an experienced QB (Jameis Winston) versus a young one (Dobbs). With the experienced guy you can take what’s there. With the young guy you have to run what he can execute.
- Tampa’s second series on offense. Bucs have a 3rd and 5 and show their first 10 personnel group of the night. Steelers play 2-4-5 and bring linebacker Mark Barron on a stunt. The pressure forces a quick throw from QB Blaine Gabbert that nearly turns into a pick-six by Devin Bush.
- Another slot blitz from Hilton out of the 2-4-5. Butler has been very aggressive with his second-level blitzes so far.
- 4th and 1 for Tampa at the Steelers 16. No field goal for BA. He’s going to challenge his OL here. Bucs 12 personnel versus our base 3-4 plus one (Edmunds). The result? Loss of two yards. No slant, twist or stem by Butler - just the big guys up front not getting moved and Devin Bush being a heck of a football player.
- I said I wasn’t going to talk about players but I have to add a note about Bush. Early as it may be, he is demonstrating tremendous instincts. He finds seams really quickly and can redirect at full speed. Watch Bush, aligned at right inside backer, take the gap on the 4th and 1 play then immediately get flat to make the tackle:
If he turns out to be as good as he looks so far he is going to allow Butler to get very aggressive with his scheme. He will be able to blitz Barron and Vince Williams to occupy offensive linemen and let Bush run to the football. That’s exciting.
- Steelers back on offense. “Benny Snell Football” will be a lot more effective when the defensive line isn’t relocating the line of scrimmage two yards into the backfield. Tampa’s front seven is playing downhill like the field is tilted. I’m not going to say it looks like they know Benny is getting the ball. But it looks like they know Benny is getting the ball.
- A couple of pocket throws and no max pass protections for Dobbs. It’s nice to see Fichtner has taken the training wheels off. Dobbs is less effective running these concepts, however. He’s better off of play-action or reacting to a single read.
- 7:12 left in the half and the Steelers run their first offensive snap in something other than 11p. It’s a 12p set with Christian Scott-Williamson as the 2nd TE opposite Xavier Grimble. Grimble looks bigger and stronger, which is important since the Steelers like two-tight end groups. They’re great for creating single coverage on Juju but only if we can run the football from them. To do that, Grimble’s progress as a blocker will be essential.
- Three and out by the Bucs. Mason Rudolph in at QB. The Steelers go right to the timing routes. A couple of quick-outs and a beautiful back-shoulder fade to Washington for a touchdown. Rudolph doesn’t have Dobbs’ arm strength but his reads are cleaner and the ball is out faster. The play-calling approach is definitely different between Dobbs and Rudolph.
- Bucs football with 1:56 left in the half. The Steelers show cover-2 but rotate post-snap to cover-1. Jordan Dangerfield is aligned 15 yards deep at safety and comes sprinting down at the snap to cover the running back. The back stays in to block so Dangerfield rushes the QB. I literally have never seen a safety attempt to bring pressure from 15 yards deep before. It’s actually funny to watch. I know Jordan is trying to mask the coverage but he’s going to have to creep up a little in order to be effective.
- Two plays later and it’s another five-man pressure. Keith Butler is blitzing the heck out of Tampa tonight. Coach LeBeau must be ecstatic! On this one, Tyler Matakevich gets a sack/fumble and the Steelers recover. P.J. Locke runs the same concept Dangerfield ran a few plays earlier. You can see Locke show up late in the GIF below. It’s a great coverage disguise — rotate down from two-high to cover the back and keep coming if he stays in to block — but the safeties need to work on the timing.
- 3rd and 12 and the Steelers throw a dig route (a deep in) to Diontae Spencer. Good ball by Rudolph and a nice play by the DB to break it up. This is about the fifth time I’ve seen some version of a dig or deep cross. Fichtner clearly wants to attack the middle of the field in the passing game. Between Juju, Vance McDonald, Jaylen Samuels and their bevy of quick slot receivers, the Steelers will have plenty of ways to do this.
- The teams trade field goals to end the half. 13-10 Steelers.
- Interesting start to the 3rd quarter. The Steelers come out in 12 personnel and go unbalanced (both tight ends on the same side of the line). They run a gap concept with a pulling guard and Snell hits it for a gain of five. The first half was pretty much all inside zone in the run game. Fichtner is more of a gap guy and transitioned the run game in that direction last season. It might be they were working on IZ in the first half and will work on gap in the second.
- Snell, by the way, looked tentative running the IZ scheme but Samuels hit one for 22 yards in the 2nd quarter. Samuels looks slimmer and quicker this summer. I love seeing that.
- Butler picks up right where he left off in the first half. He’s in 2-4-5 versus 11 personnel, blitzing and playing cover-1. This is obviously the design for the evening.
- Steelers ball. They return to the unbalanced look from 12 personnel. Rudolph hits Johnny Holton for a 60 yard catch and run on a mesh route, where two receivers criss-cross in the middle of the field at the linebacker level while a third runs up the seam and settles at about 15 yards. In the GIF below, we see the Bucs miscommunicate trying to cover all of the bodies moving in different directions. This is a great route against backers who do not excel in coverage.
- Two plays later, Rudolph hits rookie tight end Zach Gentry underneath the left upright for a touchdown. The Steelers look great attacking the middle of the field in the passing game. Gentry is probably a year away from being a varsity player but if they can get him to the point where he’s a serviceable blocker they will have great mismatches against smaller linebackers.
- 2nd and 20 for Tampa late in the quarter. The Steelers blitz again, bringing inside backer Ulysses Gilbert while leaving the other inside backer, Robert Spillane, in man coverage on the tight end. It’s nice coverage by Spillane but a great throw by quarterback Ryan Griffin for a first down. This might be a preview of things to come with Vince Williams or Mark Barron as the blitzer and Bush carrying the tight end in man.
- Devlin Hodges in at quarterback. My goodness, when he scrambles around in that #6 jersey he is Bubby Brister reincarnated…
- Seeing some bunch sets from Fichtner now with quick throws and counter gap runs. I love this look out of 12 personnel for the varsity offense with McDonald, Juju and Grimble/Samuels in the bunch with Moncrief or Washington solo on the other side of the formation. It really stresses a defense by compressing the bunch side with big bodies who can catch and block and putting a deep ball threat away from it. This is a set I’d like to see a bunch of this season.
- I apologize for the previous sentence.
- Touchdown pass from Hodges to Tevin Jones from an empty formation. Great pass protection from the OL as Hodges is able to reset his feet twice before throwing. Same thing happened on Rudolph’s TD throw to Gentry. The young guys on the OL haven’t gotten much of a push in the run game but new coach Shawn Sarrett appears to have them well-prepared in pass pro. That’s a good sign for the varsity, too.
- It’s really interesting that on this Tampa drive that began with less than 9:00 to play and the Steelers up 30-16 that Keith Butler is still bringing heat from his deep reserves. They are twisting, looping and firing five and even six guys on every snap. Tampa, to their credit, is picking up the stunts and Griffin is moving the offense with well-placed throws under pressure. This could be one of two things on Butler’s part: seeing how the young players execute the playbook or setting a tone for how the Steelers intend to stay aggressive defensively. Maybe it’s both.
- Tampa scores. I guess the blitzes are more effective when you have guys on the field who can get to the quarterback.
- Fichtner must have gotten the same memo Butler did. 4:00 to play, up 30-22 and he’s in an empty set chucking the football. Hodges throwing quick screens, crossing routes, bootlegs. The whole enchilada. It’ll be interesting to see if this is pre-season play-calling or a sign of things to come.
- Tight end Kevin Rader just coughed up the ball after a nice catch and run. Let’s see what Butler does with the D needing a stop to seal the win.
- He’s still blitzing. And one of them gets there! Sack/forced fumble from Ulysses Gilbert! Somehow the Steelers fail to recover.
- Two plays later: another blitz and another sack from Gilbert.
- Griffin gets the Bucs into the end zone with :10 left. The Steelers stop the two-point conversion attempt with (wait for it) a blitz! Good guys win, 30-28.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Consider much of this with a grain of salt due to the fact it’s August 9th but there are some interesting takeaways as far as the scheme goes:
- Defensively, Keith Butler showed that he will continue to evolve into a matchup defense by using his sub packages to counter the personnel groupings of the offense. Tonight we saw him go base versus 12 personnel and 2-4-5 versus 11. Tampa didn’t show much else and Butler stayed out of situational packages. But early indications are we can expect a lot of two DL, five DB looks. Who earns that fifth DB role will be something to watch for as the pre-season unfolds.
- Butler also blitzed like it was going out of style and played a ton of cover-1 behind it. Did he do this because, with faster personnel this year, he intends to be more aggressive than he was last season? Did he want to see how his young players executed these schemes? Or was he throwing out a red herring for Bill Belichick since Belichick is likely to have already broken this film down and committed it to his cyborg memory? This, for me, was the most interesting thing we saw on defense tonight.
- Offensively, the run game looked the same as it did last year with zone and gap runs from predominantly 11 personnel formations. The gap stuff in the second half looked a little better than the zone stuff, likely because zone schemes are harder to block for young players who haven’t had time to build chemistry together. Frankly, there wasn’t much to see in the run game.
- The passing game was far more interesting. The Steelers attacked the middle of the field with great success and, given their receiving weapons, should continue to make money there as the season progresses. They appear to be able to stretch the field vertically as well. If they remain committed to their RPOs and quick throws and can protect the QB like they did tonight, they could have a tremendous passing attack
- Also, we saw a different approach in the passing game with Rudolph than we did with Dobbs. With Dobbs the attack is more vertical; with Rudolph, it’s more horizontal. The line has to protect a bit longer with Dobbs because his throws tend to be further down the field and he takes longer to process. He can bail the OL out with his legs though, which we saw tonight. With Rudolph the ball is out quickly and the defense must tighten the throwing windows because of his accuracy. He does not possess a canon or the ability to scramble, however. Rudolph is a bit more like Roethlisberger at this point in Ben’s career, which could give him an edge on Dobbs for the backup job.
There you have it. A journal that began at 32,000 feet is literally being filed at sea level now as I’m safe on the ground back at the Jersey Shore. The Steelers are 1-0 in the pre-season and there is a lot to talk about. Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments below.