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Steelers Vertex: Covering running backs in the passing game

The Steelers gave up more receiving yards to a running back in Week 13 than they have all of 2020.

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

We’re back at it again, this time breaking new ground by looking at a losing effort. Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

The topic at hand this week is looking at how the Steelers gave up go many yards in the passing game to a running back in Week 13. Specifically, J.D. McKissic of the Washington Football team was able to help spark a comeback for his team by catching every pass thrown his way and getting good yardage as the game pressed on.

Was it something Washington did well, a shortcoming by the Steelers defense, or a combination of both?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Pittsburgh Steelers gave up the most receiving yards they have surrendered to any running back this season in Week 13. JD McKissic had 10 receptions for 70 yards against the Steelers. The only other game in which running backs combined for more than 30 receiving yards against the Steelers was in Week 1 When Saquon Barkley had 6 receptions for 60 yards and Wayne Gallman had one reception for 14 yards.

While McKissic was the only running back for the Washington Football Team to even have a target in the game, a lot of it may have been due to the fact Antonio Gibson was injured very early.

What is interesting when it comes to the breakdown of McKissic’s receiving yards is when he was targeted and the results of those receptions. In the first half, McKissic had 3 receptions for a total of 15 yards. All three of these plays were in the final three minutes of the second quarter. McKissic’s first reception was for a 3 yard gain on 2nd and 10. The other two receptions were on back to back plays both on first down. The first one went for 11 yards while the second one only went for 1 yard.

In the second half, all 7 of McKissic’s receptions went for at least 6 yards. There was a 6 yard gain on 2nd and 9 with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter. The remaining six passes McKissic caught were all in the fourth quarter. The breakdown went 6 yards, 6 yards, 16 yards, 8 yards, 7 yards, and 6 yards.

One item of note with all these passes in the second half is every single one of them was after Robert Spillane left with his knee injury. Were these passes a direct result of the defense the Steelers were playing after Spillane left? Could it be these passes were more open because the Steelers defense was getting run down towards the end of a game where they had to play on a short week? To better explain, it’s time to check out the film…

The Film Line:

Dave pointed out above that Robert Spillane was out of the game for all of J.D. McKissic’s second half receptions. It goes even farther than that though. McKissic’s three first half targets involved one play when Spillane was out and the duo of Vince Williams and Avery Williamson were in which went for 3 yards. His other two first half catches were against dime, when Spillane is off the field.

McKissic was targeted 10 times for 70 yards with Spillane off the field, and targeted 0 times with Spillane on the field. Is Spillane that good? No. He’s been playing really well, but he isn’t that great of a cover line backer. To see what really happened, we need to look at what the Washington Football Team was trying to do on offense, and how the Steelers were defending it.

Week 13, 1st quarter, 8:24. Watch the middle of the field.

It’s nothing revolutionary, the Steelers are in a nickel zone, and the Football Team sends three players to attack one zone, the three receivers to the top include a slant and a seam route attacking the hook defender to that side, pulling him back while the slant pulls defenders toward the middle of the field. Underneath that they run their tight end who now has a good amount of room. The play is to the tight end, but look at who is following that tight end, it’s the running back J.D. McKissic.

Week 13, 2nd quarter, 10:33. Robert Spillane is the linebacker on the hash marks to the bottom of the screen.

Simple play against man defense, the tight end starts out like he’s going deep to get a linebacker moving backward, then just stop and get easy yards. The important part on this one is how fast Robert Spillane gets to the receiver, hitting Logan Thomas at the catch point.

Now on to J.D. McKissic.

Week 13, 2nd quarter, 2:00. J.D. McKissic is the RB.

Here you see the initial route pushing the hook defender to the top of the screen back, a receiver coming across the middle with McKissic following. McKissic is in Vince Williams’ zone, and Williams isn’t nearly as fast changing direction or accelerating to the receiver. Williams is a smart zone defender and solid in man when he doesn’t have to change direction quickly, but when he has to reverse his momentum, it isn’t quick. Avery Williamson makes the tackle here, limiting the gain to three yards.

Three important things to take away from the film at this point:

  1. Washington was attacking zones with multiple players to create space for underneath throws.
  2. Robert Spillane is quick to the receiver on these plays, Vince Williams is not.
  3. Defenses are fine giving up 3 and 4 yard catches. In the current NFL 3-4 yards on first or second down is a win for the defense. All of the above plays were on drives that ended scoreless.

Week 13, 2nd quarter, 0:40. J.D. McKissic is the running back.

This is against dime, and the two Steelers to the top of the screen are Marcus Allen and Justin Layne. Layne starts to follow the receiver inside, and by the time he releases and comes back outside it is too late, McKissic has 11 yards and a first down. Justin Layne had played pretty well with Mike Hilton out for several weeks, in Week 13 he had a rough game, and Alex Smith went after him a lot in zone.

Week 13, 4th quarter, 10:39. Vince Williams is the linebacker to the top of the screen, Cameron Sutton is the cornerback outside of him.

We’ve seen teams run a deep route and a short out on the Steelers a lot. We’ve also seen Joe Haden jump that out route for pass break ups, interceptions and defensive touchdowns.

Joe Haden wasn’t in the game on this play. Cameron Sutton doesn’t jump the out route, he carries the deep receiver to Terrell Edmunds. That leaves Vince Williams to cover an out route he has no shot at reaching. Joe Haden isn’t just a turnover creator, he also helps cover for the Steelers linebackers in coverage, allowing the team to cheat to the middle more and making the counter to Williams’ alignment on this play (a quick out) a very dangerous pass to throw.

Week 13, 4th quarter, 9:48. J.D. McKissic is the running back.

The main communicators on the Steelers defense include Robert Spillane, Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden. All three are frequently seen pointing and moving to change the defense and fix a gap. Not one of those players are on the field on this play. Minkah Fitzpatrick takes off as soon as he sees the route combinations and Cameron Sutton taking the deep receiver, but it’s too late. Vince Williams is trying to cover three receivers. If it wasn’t for a very healthy respect for Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith likely throws the deep ball up the sideline. J.D. McKissic is a safer bet and picks up 8 yards and the first down.

The next play Logan Thomas would score a touchdown.

McKissic benefited from Spillane being out, but even more from having backup cornerbacks in that opened gaps for the running back to exploit.

The Point:

The Steelers defense is the number one defense in the NFL since Minkah Fitzpatrick joined it last season, and they hold that position because they do a great job of using the talents on the defense to their strengths while finding ways to cover for their weaknesses. Vince Williams brings a lot to the Steelers defense when he isn’t asked to cover too much space. He’s by far the most dangerous inside line backer taking on blockers both in pass rush and run defense, something Robert Spillane doesn’t do as well. But Spillane is much better covering running backs and tight ends in short zone and in man. With Spillane out, Vince Williams had more coverage responsibility. Without Joe Haden covering routes to the sideline, Williams had to do more than just cover in-cutting routes, and that left him vulnerable.

As pointed out countless times before, the Steelers can cover the loss of a player on two on the defense. Had it just been either Joe Haden or Robert Spillane out of the game rather than both of them, Washington may not have had as much success chipping away at the defense by picking up decent gains to their running back in the passing game.