As a warning, this post is really long and has a lot of Gifs.
The Steelers defense had a major problem in 2018 at inside linebacker. With Ryan Shazier gone the Steelers brought in Jon Bostic to play with Vince Williams and the results were not good enough, to say the least. That led to a major investment in the position this offseason. The Steelers acquired Mark Barron in Free Agency, then added Devin Bush and Ulysees Gilbert III in the NFL Draft. With 3 new faces at the position, only Vince Williams and special teams stalwart Tyler Matakevich remain from 2018.
Today in the film room we are going to look at just how much our LB situation hurt the team last season, and how the Steelers offseason has turned what was a weakness into a strength, focusing a lot on the role Mark Barron will play.
Enough talk, let’s get to the tape. I always take the bad news first, so a trigger warning, this may take you back to moments when you wanted to smash your TV.
Both Vince Williams and Jon Bostic can defend the run, they did great taking on blockers and clogging the middle of the line, where they struggled was in coverage and stopping outside runs. The biggest problem was their lack of ability to cover good TEs and RBs.
Let’s take a look at week 2, when the Steelers faced Travis Kelce.
Kelce is in-line off the right tackle, Vince Williams is lined up covering him, Bostic is in the middle.
Steelers run a cover-2 here, Vince needs to carry Kelce to the Deep zone, and the Chiefs do a great job pinning the flat defender on that side (Morgan Burnett) to the RB in the flat so that Sutton (playing Safety) needs to watch Hill on the outside. They send 2 deep on the bottom of the Screen so Davis needs to be there, and you end up with Vince Williams needing to carry Kelce to Jon Bostic who is dropping to the deep MLB zone part of cover-2.
But as you see, Vince can’t carry Kelce deep and Kelce beats Bostic to the deep middle and it’s a TD to make it a 14-0 KC lead. It wouldn’t get better.
Kelce is just off the line to the bottom of the screen, Jon Bostic is lined up across from him.
Here the Steelers try man with 2 deep safeties behind it as they’ve gotten tired of being beat deep, but again the Chiefs attack the Safeties with their outside speed to isolate Kelce and Bostic and that’s an easy win for the Chiefs.
I can hear Steeler fans yelling that you can’t just put Williams and Bostic on Kelce and expect to do well, and I agree. But look at the alignment that the play started with.
The Chiefs show an I-form set with Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley to the bottom of the screen, Kelce is alone to the top. The Steelers counter with their 3-4 alignment. Notice the player walking out toward the WRs, that’s Bud Dupree. This is showing zone, with Coty Sensabaugh and Terrell Edmunds to the top of the screen with Kelce. Then Patrick Mahomes goes to work moving pieces around, and you end up with this:
Kareem Hunt has moved to the top of the screen, the fullback Sherman is in with Mahomes, Kelce has switched sides. If you go watch the play again, Sensabaugh is defending Hunt, and Bud Dupree does a pretty good job of trailing Tyreek Hill with Davis looking to cut off and deep balls over Bud.
There are two ways to cover for Bostic here, either Edmunds would need to abandon his side of the field to crash to Kelce early, or Davis would have to focus entirely on Kelce and hope Bud can cover Hill the length of the field.
What stands out here is that Kelce vs. Bostic is a bigger mismatch than Dupree vs. Hill.
Bud Dupree isn’t good in coverage. He’s athletic, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing. That shows in this last play I’ll show from that Chiefs game.
Before we get to the clip, look at this shot from after the snap:
This is dime, Dupree, Tuitt, Heyward, Chickillo, and that’s Vince Williams on the right (it’s not a 90, there’s a fold in the jersey). The Steelers know the Chiefs are basically running their offense through our ILBs at this point, manipulating whatever defense the Steelers run to get Kelce on Bostic or Williams, and if the defense take the LBs off the field they run Hunt (18 runs, 75 yards and a TD) right up the middle.
So in this play Vince comes to the right like he’s on Watkins and Bud is wide, still in a rush stance, but he’s going to cover.
Right before the snap Edmunds comes up behind Vince, giving away that Vince is coming, so Mahomes snaps it quick, looks at Watkins then to Kelce, who didn’t outrun Dupree, he just settled and drifted away from him, because Dupree doesn’t know what he’s doing back there.
This is why Watt dropped into coverage too much as well, because you really can’t hide your ILBs in coverage without gimmicks. Skipping through the broadcast to these plays I got to hear several iterations on “The Steelers have no answer for Travis Kelce.” They were right, Keith Butler’s defense had no way of defending him without giving up on defending the rest of the field.
Getting away from Kelce for one more clip, let’s look at a RB in the passing game.
Christian McCaffrey is sidecar to Cam Newton, Vince Williams tries to cover him.
This is a common concept in the NFL. Swing the RB, the WR runs in to force the ILB to either duck under or go behind him. Going behind the WR gives up easy yards, going under makes it a foot race that Christian McCaffrey has no trouble winning. This was the opening score of the Carolina game, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 75 yard TD on the next play, and Vince Williams revenge INT for a TD the play after that, turned momentum around in a big way and led to a blow out. But if those hadn’t happened, the Steelers might have been in trouble since McCaffrey put up 138 yards and 3 TDs, over half Carolina’s yards and all their scores for the game.
The Steelers had no answer for him either.
I’m going to stop here, this isn't an article just to talk about the 2018 Steelers inability to cover good TEs and pass catching RBs, but I need to really drive home just how much that handcuffed the defense. I dug into some stats in this post from right before the preseason, and I want to repeat that when TEs gained 90+ yards or RBs gained 100+ yards from scrimmage, the 2018 Steelers were 3-4-1, they were 6-2 when neither happened. When teams were able to force mismatches with our ILBs we were a sub .500 team. 12-4 would have earned a first round bye.
Now I want to look at Mark Barron, and how he did covering TE’s and RBs. The Rams played the Chiefs and Travis Kelce in a record setting shootout in Week 11 of 2018, so I sat down and went through the entire game. As I expected, Mark Barron covered Kelce for over half of the game. What surprised me was that during the time Kelce was defended by Mark Barron he was targeted 4 times, catching 2 passes for 10 yards. The rest of the time, when he was covered by Marcus Peters, Marqui Christian or in zone away from Barron, Kelce was targeted 11 times, catching 8 for 117 yards and a TD.
Here’s a few plays to show Barron in coverage on Kelce.
Kelce’s the middle receiver to the bottom of the screen (he’s the tall one). Mark Barron is defending him and is easy to find with his hair.
The Rams defend Kelce here with hard outside leverage from Barron and two zone defenders covering the shallow and deep middle. Barron stays with Kelce enough to make any throw to him difficult without leading the ball right to the deep safety.
This is what you need on Kelce, he turns on the speed and gets some separation but Barron is fast enough to force any pass to him to have to be led downfield, Kelce can’t slow down and catch an easy pass in a big gap like he did against Bostic and Williams.
Not perfect or even great coverage, but that’s Travis Kelce, and Barron was good enough.
Kelce is lined up next to the left tackle, Barron is the LB lined up over him.
Here’s a great example of a term my soccer coach loved to use, “window of threat”. The idea is that on offense you have windows of opportunity, for QBs in football you hear the term passing windows. The idea of a window of threat is that every defender creates threat that takes away opportunity. In this case Barron creates threat to the pass, so Mahomes has to throw the ball over him, making his pass that much harder. Barron’s threat window shrinks the passing window, leading to a difficult throw and an incomplete pass. Kelce tries to make a great catch, and doesn’t. Barron has great instincts here, he’s following Mahomes eyes as Kelce gets past him and that keeps him in Mahomes’ throwing lane. Bud Dupree showed the opposite, Kelce got out of his direct vision and Bud had no clue where he was or where the ball was going, and gave Mahomes a nice window to put the ball in.
Kelce in the inside receiver on the top of the screen, Barron is the LB in the middle of the field.
This is my favorite of these plays. Barron has Kelce locked down until he exits Barron’s zone, convincing Mahomes to take the dump off, then Barron has the reaction time and speed to get to the RB almost as soon as the ball does. Barron can carry deep routes and he is fast enough to limit the yards on dump offs all in the same play.
Now a couple clips from the preseason of Barron
Barron is at the 37 yard line on the hash mark.
Here we see Barron’s zone skill and speed to the ball as Tampa attacks his zone with a TE cutting inside and a RB cutting outside, we also see him miss a tackle, that’s one of his negatives. Bruce Arians is giving Winston a nice, easy read here. If the TE isn’t open the RB will be. The TE isn’t open, Barron carries O.J. Howard through his zone, but you can see the point he catches Winston progressing to the RB and he cuts and is again right on the RB when he catches the ball. Peyton Barber sees Barron and does a nice job dodging him, but he gives up ground to do so and Bush and Alualu are both there and he only gets back to where he caught the ball. Baron didn’t make the play, but getting there when he did bought time for others to make the play.
Barron is right behind T.J. Watt to the bottom of the screen.
Same idea as the McCaffrey play from earlier in this film room. Barron goes under Kelce, and has the speed and agility to get to Damien Williams and force the QB to throw up a prayer instead of an easy completion. Damien Williams isn’t a slouch either, he and Alvin Kamara are the only backs who graded out as WR level threats when asked to run real routes (not just screens and flat routes).
The best part of the play is before the snap, Burns points out something to Barron, Barron immediately switches off of Kelce, stepping inside Watt and motions Layne down on Kelce. Justin Layne had no shot of making the play on the RB, Barron switched them and instead of Kelce using Barron as a shield to block Layne, Kelce engages Layne and Barron slips underneath and ruins the play. Barron brings speed, zone awareness, and communication to this defense. Those are all things the Steelers lacked at ILB last season.
I’ve heard a lot about him missing tackles, but from the film I don’t see bad tackling form, I see a player getting to the ball when others wouldn’t. Barron attempts more tackles that are likely to be broken because of his range. His speed to the ball is an asset, but at that speed it is harder to change direction and Barron flies past people quite a bit. To me Barron is like a short stop in Baseball that has great range, and so he gets more errors than other short stops who wouldn’t have even gotten to the ball. I’ll take some missed tackles if you are impacting the play, rather than a player who didn’t even get close.
So far we’ve seen how Barron is a massive upgrade in man coverage on TEs, has got good zone instincts and reacts quickly to the ball with speed, as well as the awareness and leadership to make needed pre-snap adjustments. One big question remains, can he play the run?
Barron untouched flies to the ball and disrupts runs both inside and outside like Ryan Shazier did. Watching film of the Rams and Saints it stood out how much of a priority they made it to get an offensive lineman to Barron right away. Even on outside runs away from him there were lineman coming off the snap and going for Barron. Because when that lineman gets to Barron, he’s not doing anything. The BTSC writer “cliff harris is still a punk!” did a great job showing that in his Mark Barron post from before the draft, so I’m not going to make this post even longer showing film of that. I tried to avoid rehashing stuff he covered in that post as well, so if you missed it or even if you didn’t, it’s worth looking at.
What’s changed since CHISAP’s post is the Steelers did exactly what he said they should, they went out and got Devin Bush. But with Devin Bush and Mark Barron, that’s a classic MLB in the Ray Lewis mold and a Will LB. Both can play Mack, can either play Buck?
Devin Bush did a lot of the dirty work at Michigan, what we consider the role of a Buck LB. It didn’t work out very well though, because the rest of the defense didn’t get to the ball after he redirected the runner. The year before Bush was the guy flying to the ball, and the defense was much better for it. Bush is great at navigating traffic and finding the ball, Mark Barron isn’t. So while Bush can take the role of the Buck, that would leave our defense worse off for it.
This is why common sense tells us that Vince will be on the field a lot, because if Barron and Bush are both out there, the offense can just run all over them.
But that’s not what happened in the preseason. Let’s look at the last few clips of this film room.
Bush and Barron are the LBs between the hash marks.
First play of the preseason is a run right at Mark Barron. Mark Barron sees it, and instead of trying to navigate to the ball, he crashes right into the OL and fills the hole. He got pushed out of the hole, but he filled it at the right time, and the RB goes elsewhere. That elsewhere happened to be into the arms of Tyson Alualu and Bush for a 2-yard gain.
Bush is on the Hypocycloids, Barron is moving outside of Olasunkanmi Adeniyi.
Ola is dropping into coverage, doesn’t read run until it is too late and the left side of the field is wide open. Except for Mark Barron, who throws himself into the outside half of the lead blocker, sealing the edge and forcing the runner inside where the traffic limits the run to 7 yards. If Barron doesn’t seal the edge there, it’s Barber vs. Sutton with a chance Bush gets there in time to bail Sutton out.
Barron is to the bottom, Bush to the top, both near the hashes.
Greg Gilmore and Lavon Hooks get blown out of the hole, Alualu goes outside. The entire DL is dealt with and the Bucs have 2 OL looking to peel off and block downfield. Barron sees the double team on Alualu and goes outside of him, taking away a potential lane and keeping the inside part of that double team from peeling off. Bush has a bad angle but is able to force the RB to stay inside, where Terrell Edmunds wraps him up for a 5 yard gain.
Barron and Bush both took on lineman and forced the runner to the middle of the field, where their help was. Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt rarely get blown out of the play like this, but if they do, it’s good to know we have players who can still keep it from being a big gain.
Mark Barron in these clips, and there are more like it when he played with Bush, is playing the Buck LB. He doesn’t need to be able to drive the blocker into the backfield, he doesn’t need to be able to keep the blocker in the hole (outside of week 16, the Jets have one of the few RBs that will take advantage of that), if Barron can fill the run lane at the right time he can redirect the runner back to Bush.
Mark Barron isn’t a Buck LB, but when we are facing a team with an athletic TE and a receiving threat at RB we can put both Barron and Bush on the field and know that the offense won’t be able to manipulate a bad match-up that wrecks our defense, and they won’t just be able to power the ball through our LBs.
Devin Bush is a big part of that equation, his speed, awareness, ability to navigate traffic and tackling are going to change this defense around. Mark Barron is going to be a big part as well, by being able to take the harder coverage assignments, and play the role of the Buck when the Steelers go nickel Mark Barron can free up Devin Bush to just go get the ball. I think the best evidence for the value of Mark Barron we’ve seen so far is the 4th preseason game against Carolina, when Bush was paired with Tyler Matakevich and didn’t look nearly as good. The opposing teams attacked Matakeich at every opportunity, and Bush was stuck taking on harder assignments and wasn’t flying to the ball like he did when paired with Mark Barron.