Every year as Thanksgiving approaches our family reads a Dr. Seuss book titled “Did I ever tell you how lucky you are?” As I was re-watching the Steelers defense in week 11, I felt Jake Luton earned his own story in that book.
Most of us, at some time in our lives, dreamed about being an NFL quarterback, but I doubt anyone dreamed of a day like the young Mr. Luton faced this past Sunday.
Luton’s day, like most nightmares, started out fine. His first drive resulted in a field goal, and with a completed pass and a first down to start his second drive of the game, he was looking good. Luton had completed 3 of his 5 passes for 41 yards and picked up 4 first downs in his first 8 minutes against the Steelers.
But that was the calm before the storm. After gaining that first down to start his second drive, the next three plays would change the plot, and the Jaguars offense would not recover.
1st quarter, 6:47. Robert Spillane (#41) is the linebacker on the Jaguars logo.
The Steelers have T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt split up to start the rush, and send Mike Hilton into that gap. The guard picks up Hilton, giving Watt and Tuitt 1v1 blocks, but the story on this play is Robert Spillane, who is manned up on the running back, and as soon as James Robinson (#30) shows he is blocking, Spillane accelerates to the quarterback, getting in Luton’s face, forcing an off-target throw. The Jaguars do a great job blocking Watt and Tuitt, pick up Hilton’s blitz and Robinson gets a piece of Spillane to keep his QB clean, but the pass is still disrupted. This was just the start, it is going to get worse for the rookie passer.
1st quarter, 6:41. Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen, Cameron Heyward to the right.
This is the Steelers over front, they run their 3-4 personnel, but line up in a 3-4 with one of their edge rushers as the third linebacker. On this play Robert Spillane is off screen in coverage.
The Jaguars are trying to get their back outside for a dump off. Cam Heyward starts outside for a contain rush, reads the play and keeps outside contain, and the back stops and turns, hoping to gain yards inside. There’s nothing there though, as the center has failed to reach Vince Williams and Stephon Tuitt has shed his blocker and they are right on him.
On the other side of the formation Cam Robinson (#74) chooses to block T.J. Watt and let Alex Highsmith go free. It’s a good choice, because as good as the rookie Highsmith has played, T.J. Watt is more explosive and not someone you ever want to leave unblocked.
With Highsmith closing and the running back surrounded, Luton does the smart thing and throws the ball at his back’s feet. But now it is third and 10 and the Jaguars are reeling.
1st quarter, 6:38. Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.
The Steelers have been aggressive, especially from Bud Dupree’s side of the field. The Jaguars try to exploit that with a slip pass behind Dupree, but Dupree is too fast, and he’s close enough to get up and get enough of a finger on the ball to make the throw fall short.
The Jaguars offense went from controlling the momentum to just trying to survive in a matter of a few plays, and it wouldn’t get much better for them from there on.
1st quarter, 0:18. T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the right side of the screen.
Mike Hilton gets a hit on Luton, and Bud Dupree jumps the route for a near interception, but the star of this play was T.J. Watt. Watt crashes inside and is stopped cold, or at least that is what it looks like on first glance. Watt isn’t trying to split the lineman here, he’s getting to the guard. Watt gets a hit and a grab on the guard, preventing Jacksonville from getting anyone out wide to block Hilton. Here’s a still from when Watt makes contact with the guard:
The Jaguars right guard isn’t trying to block Watt, he’s trying to get to Hilton, and Watt stops him. It isn’t an easy job Watt takes on here, and there’s no chance of him getting a stat for it, and he isn’t going to gain defensive payer of the year award votes for Mike Hilton pressures, this is team football, the kind of buy in to Keith Butler’s schemes that has made the Steelers the best pass rushing team in the NFL.
Also notice the stunt from Vince Williams and Cameron Heyward that at the moment T.J. hits the guard has a nice 4 man spread containing the quarterback in the pocket while they drop Bud Dupree into coverage where he would get a shot at a turnover. I say it a lot, but Keith Butler is the best pass rush coordinator in the NFL, and one of the best ever.
2nd quarter, 7:00. Cameron Heyward is manning the edge to the bottom of the screen
The Steelers counter the Jaguars 2 TE set by loading up defenders to the strong side and Cameron Heyward to the weak side, where he will have to defend any counter runs.
The Jaguars run a WR screen designed to take advantage of the aggressiveness of the Steelers rush. The left tackle leaves Heyward to go block Bud Durpee, the slot blocks Steven Nelson and the guard gets upfield to block Minkah Fitzpatrick. If Cameron Heyward rushes Luton this is likely a big play for the Jaguars. Cameron Heyward isn’t the guy you want to go after though, he sniffs it out from the start. I can’t get enough of the moment the receiver catches the ball and looks to run, sees Heyward waiting for him and decides he’d rather not run that way. Cameron Heyward ended his day with 1 solo tackle, 4 assists and a QB hit, but he was all over the field, dominating with power and athleticism, but mostly with his intelligence.
2nd quarter, 3:09. Terrell Edmunds (#34) is to the defender to the left side of the screen, Tyson Alualu (#94) is lined up on the left hashmarks.
Alex Highsmith (#56, between Edmunds and Alualu) distracts the tackle for half a second before dropping into a shallow zone, likely looking for the running back to leak out. Alualu sells the slant right with Highsmith, then cuts back to get into a prime passing lane where he ends up knocking the pass up for Minkah Fitzpatrick to intercept. The slant right sell from Alualu and Highsmith does the job, and Terrell Edmunds is in the pocket untouched, and his presence and the impending hit Jake Luton is about to take alters his throwing mechanics. It is easier to see in slow motion.
Luton pulls his arm in, his head down and inside and turns his shoulder into the hit. It isn’t a big change, but that reaction will pull your throw downward. We can’t say if it made the difference between Alualu getting a hand on the pass or not, but it didn’t hurt. This is really why the Steelers pass rush is so good, this pressure from Edmunds was a team effort, and Butler puts the guys setting up the pressure into position to deflect the hot route that Edmunds’ blitz tells the quarterback to throw (the slant inside). Although as perfect as the left side of the screen looks, we’ll ignore the right side on this play, even Heyward and Dupree can have a miscommunication periodically.
3rd quarter, 10:13. Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the right side.
One of my favorite things to show is the pass rush on plays that don’t end in a sack, and while this play does end in a sack, that’s not why we are looking at it. I want to start with what the initial rush looks like.
T.J. Watt is wide, Stephon Tuitt is driving straight up the field. Watt is about to come flying inside and crash into the guard Tuitt is driving back (they aren’t nice to that man) to spring Tuitt outside on a stunt. on the other side Heyward is driving straight at the guard, and Bud Dupree is preparing to also crash inside. This play looks, and will continue to look like a double stunt from the Steelers front four. It’s in dime, (#27 Marcus Allen is the only linebacker) where they run double stunts the most, and if you look at Bud Dupree’s crash inside, he gets his arm outside the tackle’s arm, he’s crashing inside and he’s taking his blocker with him, as you can see below, when Dupree and Watt both spring their haves of the stunt, and Tuitt is heading outside of Watt.
Cameron Heyward doesn’t run the stunt. If you go back to the film of the play, Heyward is heading right at the guard, but the guard is looking at Dupree, he is preparing to deal with Dupree so the tackle can switch to Heyward when Heyward rushes outside Dupree. Cam Heyward sees the guard not looking his way and the center not looking his way and splits them easily. Jake Luton smartly bails on the pocket and runs away from Heyward, right into the arms of Stephon Tuitt.
These stunts are nasty to defend, no ones likes taking a shot to the ear, and no guard likes their tackle being run into them while they fail to block anyone. The guard tries to cheat a bit and gain an advantage defending the stunt, and Heyward absolutely destroys him for it.
I’m thankful that the Steelers have the best pass-rush coordinators I’ve ever seen, and an incredibly talented, motivated and selfless group of players playing for him. But I’m also thankful, and you should be too Ducky, that you aren’t unlucky enough to have to play quarterback against this defense.