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Despite injuries, the Steelers defense was making plays in Week 13

Despite being down numerous starters, the defense remained impressive.

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

The Steelers lost their first game of the 2020 season in week 13. We are going to ignore the offense for this film room and look at the defense that held the Washington Football team to 10 points on ten drives to start the game, only to give up 13 points on their last three drives.

The end of the game is easy to explain. Joe Haden was injured with 11 minutes left in the game, at that point the Steelers were winning 17-10 and the defense was holding The Football Team to 4.05 yards per play. The next 13 plays that defense gave up 87 yards (6.69 ypp) and 10 points. The defense rallied to force the second drive to end in a field goal and after an interception gave The Football Team a short field, backed them up 2 yards to force another field goal. It was remarkably similar to the end of the LA Chargers game in 2019, when Haden and Nelson were both injured and the Chargers scored 17 points in the fourth quarter.

This game the Steelers would start with Devin Bush, Bud Dupree and Steven Nelson out of the game, but they lived up to the team mantra of next man up.

1st quarter, 9:06. Robert Spillane is the linebacker in the middle of the play, on the hashmarks.

This is a great example of a Keith Butler blitz. The Washington offensive line, as expected, slides to T.J. Watt’s side. Butler slants the defensive line to the slant, ending up with Alex Highsmith being blocked directly in the middle of the pocket by the left tackle. That leaves only the running back to protect Alex Smith when Terrell Edmunds blitzes. Robert Spillane is in man on that running back, and again shows his strength as a green dog blitzer, following Edmunds and finishing the play. It’s easy to think Spillane was a designed blitzer on this play, but this is just another fantastic transition between coverage and blitzing by Spillane.

1st quarter 6:16. Cameron Sutton is in coverage against Cam Sims.

Cameron Sutton would have a few struggles in this game as his snap count grew, but he was playing well for most of the game. Sutton would end up setting his career high for snaps by 15 more than his previous high while recording his first game playing 100% of defensive snaps while still recording 17 special teams snaps. Sutton’s 89 snaps in week 13 is the most in a game by any Steeler this season, beating Minkah Fitzpatrick’s 86 snaps in week 7. The previous 12 games Sutton averaged 39 snaps a game.

While this next play wasn’t on defense, it was a great play made by a Steelers defender who hasn’t had much play time but helped the Steelers dodge a bullet late in the first quarter.

1st quarter, 2:00. Sean Davis is #21.

With a lot of players watching, Davis sees the football is still loose and pounces on it. preserving possession and preventing a Washington drive that would have started on the Steelers side of the field. It also saved Justin Layne from being directly involved in a second turnover on a punt return in consecutive games, as he was beaten badly in week 12 on a punt return where the gunner he was responsible for forced a fumble.

But a backup safety isn’t going to be the face of heads-up plays in a game where Mike Hilton finally got back to his pre-injury level of snaps.

2nd quarter, 9:06. Mike Hilton is the slot defender to the bottom of the screen.

When Logan Thomas (#82) stops and takes over at quarterback, Mike Hilton gestures, but far more importantly, he moves up and inside, getting inside any block from the wide receivers who cannot react to his movement until the ball is snapped. Hilton makes a fantastic tackle, but that was set up by his quick reaction to the change in the formation.

3rd quarter, 14:51. Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the top of the screen.

The Steelers captain had his usual great game, coming close to forcing a safety when he drove two blockers into the pocket and right into Alex Smith.

4th quarter, 14:12. Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the top of the screen.

The next play he draws a 1v1 block, throws his blocker on his back only to see Smith again get the ball out for a short gain.

Sadly the next play the Washington Football Team would gain 31 yards on a screen pass in what would end up their only touchdown drive in the first three quarters of the game.

3rd quarter, 5:16. Alex Highsmith is the edge defender to the top of the screen.

In his first game as a starter, Highsmith gets pressure on a great pass rush move, but Alex Smith again hits a short pass against the pressure. In the first half the Steelers sacked Smith three times, but wouldn’t get home in the second half despite consistently pressuring the veteran quarterback.

4th quarter, 14:16. T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the top of the screen.

Despite getting help from the right tackle on his block, Football Team hero of the game Logan Thomas (#82) can’t keep Watt from getting back to the ball to force a fumble on this play. Watt goes for the scoop and score, and Logan Thomas saves the play by getting to the ball first.

If T.J. Watt falls on this the Steelers get the ball in good position, but with the way the offense was playing, it’s hard to argue with his attempt to score here. If he had scored this game might have perfectly mirrored the 2019 Chargers game, when the margin of victory was 7 points in a game that involved a Devin Bush defensive touchdown.

4th quarter, 1:59. T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the top of the screen.

Watt would try his best to right the situation on this play when he was left unblocked (seriously, you’d think teams would know better at this point) and stuffed the run while doing his best to keep the runner off the ground and strip the ball. The running back does a great job of going full fetal position to protect the ball and end the play as soon as possible.

While the Steelers fell short in week 13, and there was plenty of bad to dissect, it is hard to put much blame on a defense that kept the team in the game and would have won it if they didn’t end up losing too many players to account for.

It is heartening to see how well they adapted to the loss of Bud Dupree, and even Steven Nelson. If Nelson and Haden both miss another week, it will take an amazing offensive output to put the Steelers on top against the Buffalo Bills. As of today the Steelers are the number one defense in points allowed and turnovers forced, and if they get enough of their injured players back they will have a good shot at keeping that title.