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The big difference between the Steelers’ first and second half defense in Week 3

The Steelers shut down the Texans offense in the second half, but how?

NFL: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers allowed the Houston Texans to score 3 touchdowns in the first half of their Week 3 matchup. Deshaun Watson completed 14 of his 18 passes for 202 yards and 2 touchdowns with 0 interceptions and 2 sacks in that half. The second half was a different story, Watson completed 5 of his 9 passes for 62 yards and 1 interception, with 3 sacks.

The number of pass attempts is a big deal, but while Watson attempted twice as many passes in the first half, he did so in only 2 more drives than he had in the second half. The Steelers offense did a lot with their two long scoring drives, keeping the Texans off the field and dominating time of possession. But the defense was much more efficient in the second half, and that is what this film room is going to look at.


Deshaun Watson puts on a show

After the Steelers took their first drive of the game 63 yards for a field goal, Deshaun Watson drives the Texans down the field on a touchdown drive where he went 3-3 for 65 yards and a touchdown. Here’s the touchdown.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 6:07. Randall Cobb is the slot receiver to the top of the screen, Mike Hilton is covering him.

I’ve covered Mike Hilton, a lot in my film rooms. He’s a great slot corner, but you can’t leave him on an island, he needs help over the top. Cobb is a really good route runner, and here he beats Mike Hilton and it turns into a touchdown. My problem with this play is Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers are playing cover-1, with 5 players rushing the quarterback. But look at Fitzpatrick, he starts the play on the opposite side of the field, and doesn’t have time to get back and help before Cobb crosses the goal line.

This view makes it pretty clear what he’s trying to do.

The Steelers stack Fitzpatrick over Sutton on the tight end, making it look like Sutton might be blitzing and Fitzpatrick will be covering him. Watson doesn’t care if Sutton is blitzing though, when he has 3 receivers and 3 defenders on the left side. As soon as Edmunds shows that he is covering the running back Watson knows he has Cobb open, and with Fitzpatrick on the far side of the field its an easy touchdown.

Week 3, 2nd quarter, 12:18. Will Fuller is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers have this play well covered, but Deshaun Watson evades the rush and escapes the pocket. As Watson approaches the line of scrimmage, Cameron Sutton reacts, coming down to engage Watson. He leaves Will Fuller to do so, and five seconds after the ball is snapped Watson hits Fuller for 9 yards to convert on third down. The Texans would finish the drive with a 2 yard touchdown run.

Week 3, 2nd quarter, 3:37.

The next Texans drive the Steelers get a 6 yard sack on 2nd and 8 to set up 3rd and 14, and the Steelers break out my favorite defense from 2019, their cover-3 variant that moves both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds up into the middle of the field dropping Cameron Sutton and the outside corners deep, with Mike Hilton and their dime linebacker shallow and outside. A formation I call their tent defense because of how deep Sutton drops.

The middle of the field is Minkah Fitzpatrick land, you aren’t throwing the ball there, and Terrell Edmunds is really good in this spot as well. To throw over the safeties you have to attack Joe Haden, Cameron Sutton or Steven Nelson when they have easier assignments because the deep ball is all they have to worry about. Like most teams, the Texans dump the ball off underneath, where the Steelers best 4 tacklers on the field can come forward and swarm the ball. A six yard gain to bring up 4th and 8 is a win for the Steelers.

Week 3, 2nd quarter, 0:35. Randall Cobb is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen, Mike Hilton is covering him.

Minkah Fitzpatrick is in the deep middle to start this play, and Mike HIlton is backed off the line of scrimmage. You can see how open the middle of the field is as the Steelers rush 5 players with a 6th player reading the runningback and joining the rush when the back blocks.

Notice the route from the receiver to the top of the screen. If Fitzpatrick steps up to defend the Cobb route Watson has a 1v1 with Haden for a touchdown. Haden is playing with outside leverage because he has Fitzpatrick inside to help, so the post route is open if Fitzpatrick isn’t there.

This is how teams are attacking Minkah Fitzpatrick. This is why I say he isn’t a great single-high safety, because he can’t come up and attack these routes when the opponent can pin him deep. On early downs, when the Steelers play cover-1 and blitz teams aren’t afraid of Minkah Fitzpatrick. Compare to the play above, where teams avoid the entire middle of the field and essentially give up on third down rather than challenge him as a hook defender. This is why people viewed him as a strong safety and slot defender but not a free safety.

Week 3, 2nd quarter, 0:28. Steven Nelson is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen, guarding Will Fuller.

The Steelers have one deep safety again and man coverage. Watson has Will Fuller 1v1 on the outside, and he nails the pass.

There’s nothing Nelson can do here against that throw. That’s a big time throw, and you get that when you face great quarterbacks.

The Steelers in the first half saw Deshaun Watson solve their disguises, exploit their mistakes, evade their pass rush and make great throws. They went into the locker room having scored three times in the first half and trailing by 4.


The Steelers pass rush wins the second half

The Steelers started the second half with a 12 play, 5 minute drive that I covered in my previous film room. The momentum the Texans had taken into the locker room slowly dissipated as the Steelers converted on two 4th downs and kept the Texans offense in spectator mode. When the Texans offense got on the field, it didn’t go well for them, as the rush that Watson evaded so much in the first half started finding him.

Week 3, 3rd quarter, 4:16. Stephon Tuitt is the defensive tackle lined up on the hashmarks to the top of the screen.

The Steelers are in cover-1, but this time they only rush 4 and put Minkah Fitzpatrick up in a robber role (he starts the play right behind Tuitt) to keep the Texans from attacking the middle of the field. It doesn’t matter though, the scheme is largely irrelevant because Stephon Tuitt is in the backfield sacking Deshaun Watson before he has time to make his reads.

Game 3, 3rd quarter, 0:46. Watch the receiver to the bottom of the screen, and the movement of the defensive backs to the top of the screen.

The Texans have open receivers in this zone defense, but it doesn’t matter. Why?

Because Deshaun Watson was scrambling right from the start, Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward seal him in the pocket, and Watson has no chance to reset and look downfield.

Week 3, 4th quarter, 14:57. Watch Deshaun Watson.

This is the Steelers in their cover-3 “tent” variation. When Watson breaks the pocket Minkah Fitzpatrick comes up to challenge him, Terrell Edmunds fills Fitzpatrick’s zone, and Watson throws across his body to Randall Cobb where Edmunds had been just a second before. This is by far the longest gain by the Texans as well as their second, and final first down conversion of the second half. This drive would end With Mike Hilton’s interception, and the Steelers would drive 12 plays and eat up 7 minutes of game clock to take the lead.

Even with the Steelers adaptations to the Houston offense, when Deshaun Watson was able to break the pocket and extend the play the Texans gained yards, even the Steelers largely unbeatable third and long cover-3 defense was vulnerable.

The game wasn’t over yet, as the Texans and Deshaun Watson still had plenty of time for one more touchdown drive.

Week 3, 4th quarter, 6:24. T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

What coverage scheme are the Steelers running? It doesn’t matter. T.J. Watt makes the secondary irrelevant and the Texans are facing 2nd and 21. An incomplete pass and a false start later the Texans are facing third and 26, and the Steelers bring back out their 3rd and long defense.

Week 3, 4th quarter, 5:37, 3rd and 26.

The Steelers are fine giving up 16 yards here, so they line up their defenders on the original line of scrimmage and dare Deshaun Watson to test them farther down field. Watson throws a laser, but his receiver is tackled at the catch point and the Steelers would get the ball back with 4:47 left on the clock. Eight Steelers offensive plays later Ben Roethlisberger would take the knee from the victory formation to end the game.

With the Steelers offense controlling the clock with three 4+ minute drives and the Steelers pass rushers getting to Deshaun Watson, the Texans had little offensive success in the second half, and the Steelers pulled out a win over a team that rarely loses when they have a halftime lead.


The Conclusion

The Steelers defense did make adjustments in coverage for the second half of the Steelers game, but they didn’t matter nearly as much as the pass rush getting to Watson and the Steelers offense controlling the game with a more than 2/1 time of possession advantage in the second half.

This should be a theme going forward with this team. I pointed out last season that the Steelers defense was historically great when the opposing offense started a drive on their side of the field, but were not great when starting on the Steelers side of the field. As long as the Steelers offense can move the ball, and put the defense in good position, the Steelers will be a great team. When offensive turnovers or frequent three and outs put the defense in bad spots, that’s when this team will have trouble. It also stands out that while the defense may be disappointing a lot of the fan base, this is a top 5 defense right now, this is what a top 5 defense looks like in the modern NFL.