Ok, time for something different. It’s March, the draft is still six weeks away, the Steelers are too broke to do anything sexy in free agency and the XFL, although more interesting than I anticipated, isn’t exactly scratching the itch for meaningful football. These are the lean days of the football calendar without much meat on the bone.
To fill the void, I thought I’d spend the next few weeks breaking down specific schemes the Steelers like to utilize. Let’s call the series “Steelers Playbook.” It might not be click-bait material, but I hope it will appeal to those looking to gain some insight into X and O’s and to deepen their understanding of what the Steelers are doing on the field. If you’re a scheme geek like me and you want to know more about the chess match that helps make football so compelling, I think you’ll like the series.
For our first installment, I’m going to examine how the Steelers utilize secondary players in their blitz schemes. In subsequent weeks, I’m open to suggestions. If you want to see a breakdown of a specific play, or concept, or a scheme they like to use, let me know in the comments. Be as specific as possible so I can narrow the focus and get into detail. A breakdown of their 2-4-5 package or of their passing game is too broad for one article. But how they use 2-4-5 in the red zone, or how they run Shallow Cross (one of their favorite routes), are great topics.
On with it, then. For the first installment of Steelers Playbook, here’s a look at how they use secondary players as blitzers and why this has been effective in Keith Butler’s defense.
Back in the 1990s, when grunge music and Doc Marten boots were popular and I had a full head of hair, the Steelers defense was so blitz-heavy it earned the nickname Blitzburgh. Those Dick LeBeau-led units introduced the NFL to the zone-blitz, which sent rushers from a variety of angles and alignments while simultaneously scrambling players in zone coverage in an effort to disrupt pass protection schemes and confuse quarterbacks. The Steelers were highly successful with the zone blitz, as they racked up 139 sacks between 1994-1996, tops in the league.
The Steelers are once again a prolific pass rushing team under Keith Butler. They’ve totaled 162 sacks the past three seasons, also tops in the league. Butler has built an elite pass rushing unit by taking some of what LeBeau did and adding a few wrinkles of his own. The Steelers don’t blitz nearly as much as they did in the 90s, and although they still use the zone blitz, they’re more willing to play man while bringing pressure than they’ve been in the past. The Steelers will send an inside backer as a fifth rusher at times on fairly traditional twist, loop and overload blitzes. But the most intriguing idea they’ve added the past few seasons has been to include a secondary player — usually a slot corner or strong safety — in the stunt. This scheme has paid dividends for the Steelers by turning players like Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds loose at the line of scrimmage.
Here’s one such pressure the Steelers used in their game against Miami last season. This is a classic LeBeau zone-blitz using Hilton as the edge rusher to the quarterback’s blind side. They attack Miami on a 3rd and 6 play with a four-man rush from an unusual 1-5-5 personnel group (Cam Heyward is the only defensive lineman on the field). On the stunt, Heyward and Bud Dupree execute a “long-stick” maneuver (coach-speak for a two-gap stunt), pulling the interior of Miami’s line with them. Linebacker Vince Williams twists from left to right, aiming for the B-gap between Miami’s left tackle and guard, while Hilton (28) comes from depth to attack the edge. The design of the stunt is intended to open the B-gap for Williams by pulling the left guard with Dupree and enticing the left tackle to turn out on Hilton.
The disguise of this stunt is excellent. With Dupree, Heyward and Watt aligned on the ball prior to the snap, it looks like a standard three-man rush. Linebackers Williams or Devin Bush (55) seem the most likely candidates to provide additional pressure. Hilton appears to be locked in coverage while Watt, in a three-point stance, seems certain to attack the edge (Miami right tackle Jesse Davis is convinced Watt is coming - watch how quickly he gets out of his stance and kick-steps into pass protection).
Watt does not come. Instead, he drops into the hook-curl zone and looks for something crossing the field in his direction. Hilton, meanwhile, times his stunt well and comes flying across the line of scrimmage at the snap. Hilton’s pressure catches quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s eye, and Fitzpatrick immediately looks to Albert Wilson (15) as his hot receiver. Bush, however, is squatting on top of the route. Fitzpatrick doesn’t have time to search for a second option. He steps up in the pocket and tries to escape but is swallowed up by the rush.
The success of this stunt begins with how well disguised Hilton is in the pre-snap look. In the photo below, the arrow indicates Hilton’s alignment prior to the snap. He’s lined up just inside tight end Mike Gesicki (88) as Gesicki begins to motion towards the box.
From this alignment, it is extremely difficult for Miami’s pass protection to account for Hilton as a blitzer. A linebacker would be much easier to identify but a slot corner coming from that much width provides an element of deception. To Miami’s credit, the running back to Fitzpatrick’s right picks Hilton up and the left tackle hinges back late to help. But the zone coverage behind the stunt is not what Fitzpatrick had anticipated. Fitzpatrick seems surprised that Bush has not carried Gesicki up the seam, as he would in a typical cover-2 or cover-4 (the pre-snap look). Instead, Bush is sitting on the hot route while safety Minkah Fitzpatrick picks up Gesicki. The disguise fools (Ryan) Fitzpatrick and he is unable to make a throw.
Hilton is an ideal slot blitzer because he has proven he can both disguise his approach and create pressure from distance. He comes with speed but is not out of control and can throttle down quickly. On the play above, Hilton cannot get to the quarterback but he wisely adjusts his path to take on the running back who has slid over to block him. This compresses the pocket and does not give Fitzpatrick an escape route to his left. A lesser player would have continued up the field and opened a window through which Fitzpatrick could bail. Hilton’s discipline and understanding of his role help make this sack possible.
Hilton has proven he can get to the quarterback as well. His 6.5 sacks over the past three seasons are impressive for a slot corner. In the GIF below, we see him execute a gap exchange stunt with outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo (56) off of the right edge. Hilton does a tremendous job of “getting skinny” by dipping under the running back’s block before redirecting and making the sack. Hilton does not give the back a target to strike while maintaining the integrity of his rush lane. He is a perfect example of how good blitzers are as valuable as good schemes. The designs don’t matter much unless players are capable of executing them. Hilton’s skill in this regard has made him an important player in Butler’s defense.
Here’s another way Butler incorporates defensive backs into his pressure schemes, this time from last season’s game in Pittsburgh against the Ravens. Take a look at the pre-snap picture. As quarterback Lamar Jackson raises his right leg to signal motion from Baltimore’s three-receiver side of the formation, the Steelers appear to be in a fairly standard seven-man box with two corners and two safeties in a traditional alignment. Strong safety Terrell Edmunds, who is circled, is the player on which we’ll focus:
As receiver Willie Snead (83) motions from left to right, the Steelers rotate into an entirely different look. The blitz seems a bit more obvious now as nine defenders are within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Edmunds, indicated by the arrow, has walked down into the box while corner Steven Nelson has tightened his alignment at the bottom of the screen. Meanwhile, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick appears to have shifted into a cover-1 look. Any of the nine players crowding the box could become blitzers at the snap. The question, of course, is who is coming and who is staying put? Decoding a look like this is difficult for even the most experienced quarterback.
Edmunds, as the widest box defender, is the most logical candidate to cover Snead as he releases into the flat while linebacker Mark Barron (26) seems free to come after the quarterback. Instead, watch what happens:
Barron chases Snead while Edmunds blitzes into the B-gap between the right guard and tackle. He is picked up by the guard but he stays in his rush lane and does not allow Jackson an escape route. The same is true for the other pass rushers. They all come aggressively but with discipline, forcing Jackson to stay in the pocket and decipher the coverage.
As for that coverage, the Steelers lock onto Baltimore man-to-man. At the bottom of the screen, Nelson runs with the widest route and Hilton gets hip-to-hip on the crosser. Joe Haden sticks the curl up top while Barron does a nice job staying with Snead. Vince Williams is there to cancel the check-down out of the backfield. Jackson has nowhere to go with the football and no place to escape the pocket. It’s a wonderfully designed blitz made even better by flawless execution in both the pass rush and in coverage.
Why did Butler use Edmunds on this particular blitz and not Barron? Several reasons. One, coverage disguise is essential against a young quarterback like Jackson, so bringing a safety who had initially lined up in a two-high shell is a good way of keeping Jackson guessing from where the pressure is coming. Two, Barron is a capable coverage player and gives Butler the flexibility to swap responsibilities here. And three, Edmunds’ athleticism is ideal for pursuing the elusive Jackson. Having a superior athlete blitz Jackson offers the benefit of pressure plus pursuit. It’s an effective use of Edmunds, who is much better moving forward and being aggressive than he is backpedaling and reading.
Let’s look at one more. Butler’s blitzes aren’t always designed to get after the quarterback. Some are intended to put an extra hat in the box to defend the run. Defensive backs are rarely accounted for in interior run-blocking schemes and can often come unblocked when sent on run-blitzes. We see just that when we look at how Seattle intended to block this inside zone run from their game in Pittsburgh last September:
The Seahawks believe they’ll get a double-team on backside tackle Stephon Tuitt (91), which will open up a cut-back lane for the running back. But, as we see in the GIF below, the Steelers slant their front at the snap, bringing Dupree, Heyward and Tuitt across the faces of their adjacent linemen and into the gaps to their left. This causes confusion for the Seahawks. No one climbs to linebacker Devin Bush (55), who is unblocked. And no one accounts for Hilton (indicated by the arrow above) coming off of the edge. Hilton closes quickly and bends the edge on a great angle to make the tackle for a two-yard loss. What appeared to be a numbers advantage for Seattle in the box is nullified by the slant up front by the Steelers and Hilton’s ability to close from width. He again demonstrates how important it is to have players who can execute the schemes to which they are assigned.
So, for the sake of coverage disguise, complicating blocking and pass protection schemes and getting a superior athlete into the box to make plays, Butler has become fond of incorporating secondary players into his blitzes. He has the right players to make these schemes effective but he’s done a great job devising them as well. A few years back, BTSC was inundated with comments about his failures to disguise defenses and the way offenses would generate advantageous match-ups against him (Jon Bostic vs. Keenan Allen, anyone?). The addition of speed and versatility via free agency (Nelson, Barron), the draft (Bush, Edmunds) and one hell of a trade (Fitzpatrick) has allowed Butler to remedy many of these problems. He can be creative now in a way he could not a few years back. The results speak for themselves.
The Steelers will have some tough choices to make as they head into free agency. Given the fact they are up against the cap and have a number of their own free agents to sign before considering players from other teams, it’s possible Hilton could walk. He is a restricted free agent and could be lured away by a team with ample cap space who values his ability to do some of the things we’ve showcased here. The Steelers will have to decide if he is worth retaining or if they believe they can plug a player like Cam Sutton into Hilton’s role. Sutton is better in coverage but does not possess Hilton’s blitz capability. Losing Hilton could force Butler to reconfigure some of the secondary pressures that have been so effective recently.
As is often the case, money will likely decide Hilton’s fate in Pittsburgh. With or without him, expect Butler to remain aggressive with his secondary players and to continue to involve them at the line of scrimmage. Blitzburgh may be dead but the Steelers are finding new ways to turn up the heat on opposing offenses.