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Who was the worst Pittsburgh Steeler defender in coverage?

The Steelers were among the best pass defense teams, but who was their weakest link?

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the worst pass defense teams in the NFL in 2019. For two weeks. After the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers turned into one of the best pass defense teams in the NFL, ending up ranking near the top of the league in many pass defense stats. While it is easy to give a lot of credit to Minkah Fitzpatrick, and easy to say he was one of, if not the best pass defender, we also want to know who was the worst. Before we dig into that, we should take a look at the Steeler pass defense numbers.

Team pass defense numbers

Here’s where the Steelers ranked in the key rate based pass defense stats.

Completion percentage: 6th
Yards per completion: 12th
Yards per attempt: 7th
Touchdown percentage: 20th
Interception percentage: 2nd
Sack Rate: 1st
Net Yards per attempt: 4th (includes sacks and yards lost from sacks)
Pass defended percentage: 2nd
Obstruct %: 1st

That last one (Obstruct %) is a stat I use, it is just the percentage of pass plays that ended in a pass defended or a sack, the percentage of plays where the defense physically stopped the offense from completing a pass.

The Steelers were very aggressive in pass defense, their strengths were getting to the QB, as they not only led the league in sacks, but in QB Hits (QB is hit right around the time they throw) as well, while coming in second in percentage of passes that were defended. A full 24.1% of times opponents wanted to pass the ball the Steelers either sacked the QB or broke up the pass. Second place was the Patriots at 23.3%. The defense was focused more on attacking the pass than containing the yards gained.

The Steelers paid for that aggressiveness by giving up the 13th highest percentage of TD passes.

Individual advanced stats

Let’s get right to the stats. These numbers are all derived from stats found at Sports Info Solutions Data Hub.

YPC: Yards per catch allowed
YPT: Yards allowed divided by total targets
Target%: percentage of cover snaps the player was targeted
YPSnap: Yards allowed divided by snaps in coverage
Breakup%: passes defended divided by targets
Cover%: The percentage of defensive snaps the player was in coverage

Two stats I want to look at first are Cover% and Target%. Cover% is very useful for looking at rotation players like the inside linebackers and nickel and dime backs. It shows Vince Williams was used heavily in run situations, and when the opponent did pass, he was used as a rusher 22.0% of the time. Similarly Mike Hilton faced a much lower percentage of cover snaps than Cameron Sutton did, with Hilton rushing the passer 11.8% of the time, the highest percentage of any DB, and higher than both Devin Bush (6.2%) and Mark Barron (10.9%).

Target% is a great stat to see how often an offense attacked a player, you can’t just take it at face value though, because who the player is defending matters. LBs that cover FBs and #2 TEs get targeted far less than outside corners, which is why Vince Williams was targeted a lot less than Steven Nelson. But you can see that teams threw at Steven Nelson less than the other main CBs, and that Mark Barron faced a lot of targets for a LB, which says a lot about how the Steelers used him.

Playing aggressively in the secondary

These stats say a lot about Mike Hilton. First, the coaches like him against the run and blitzing the QB, and opposing offenses like to target him when he is in coverage (2nd highest target%), where he gives up the most yards of any non-safety per catch. But Mike Hilton also was second only to the unreal Minkah Fitzpatrick in breakup%, getting to over 20% of the passes that came his way.

I’ve said a lot that Mike Hilton is at his best when he is aggressive and attacking, and gets substantially worse the farther from the line of scrimmage he gets. In 2019 Hilton was downright terrible before Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team. After week 3 Hilton was able to be much more aggressive in coverage and most people will tell you he had a great bounce-back year after a rough 2018. When the truth is he was asked to cover less, and allowed to be more aggressive when he was in coverage, as the Steelers trusted the safeties behind him to cover for him when his gambles didn’t pay off.

To a lesser extent we can say the same thing about Joe Haden. Haden had a higher breakup% than Steven Nelson, a higher target% and a lower yards per catch allowed. This is also due to Haden playing aggressively and the safeties behind him being asked to cover for him if it didn’t work out. It was a great strategy, Joe Haden recorded the most interceptions he’s had since his rookie season, and the Steelers reached 20 interceptions for the first time since 2010. But it also led to him giving up 5 TDs.

The aggressive play of Joe Haden and Mike Hilton shows up in a bad way multiple times in 2019. Here’s an example.

Week 6, 2nd quarter, 2:58, 1st and 10. Joe Haden and Mike Hilton are covering the WRs to the top of the screen.

Both Haden and Hilton jump on the WR screen fake, leaving Minkah Fitzpatrick to run down an easy pass to Mike Williams. Haden jumped a lot of routes in 2019, creating a lot of highlights, but also a lot of plays that left a safety scrambling to cover a wide-open WR. You can see this play out in a lot of big plays involving Terrell Edmunds, most famously when Edmunds horribly misplayed a would-be interception against Arizona. Haden was watching the QB and let his man get free.

You are. . . the weakest link.

There are some easy cop-out options here, like Kam Kelly or Artie Burns, but they didn’t play enough, and were exposed primarily when they were filling in for injured players, so I’m not choosing them. With those two out of the way, let’s chose one player from each position group for our finalists.

Joe Haden gave up big plays, but he made a lot of big plays, and the safeties behind him were able to cover for him, most of the time. Mike Hilton made far fewer big plays, and was beaten more, Mike Hilton is one of our finalists, as the weakest among the CBs. Note his high target%, high YPC allowed, and his team leading 1.16 yards allowed per cover snap. The Steelers were right to use him as they did. His big plays mitigate, but do not erase, his weaknesses.

Picking a LB is harder, as they were used in different roles. Devin Bush gave up 5 TDs (leading the team in TD% and TDs per cover snap), and that matters a lot, compared to Barron’s 2 TDs allowed and Vince Williams’ 1, the rookie is the right pick here. Mark Barron, for all his flaws, was consistently given the hardest assignments of the three and yet his stats are comparable to Bush’s. Of course I’m not looking at all at run defense, and Barron was brought to the team as a cover LB, so if you would take Barron here it makes sense, but it’s hard to look past the TDs allowed.

For a safety, everyone knows the pick is Terrell Edmunds, I’ve already ruled out the easy slam-dunk pick of Kameron Kelly, so let’s spend a moment to gawk at Minkah Fitzpatrick’s stats. He was targeted a ridiculously low 2.7% of his snaps, while leading the team with an insane 38.5% of targets resulting in him breaking up the pass. It is important to note that Minkah does not get a breakup for the interceptions he recorded off tipped passes, he gets the interception but the player who tipped the ball gets the breakup. Which is why I used breakups and not INTs. Minkah Fitzpatrick was incredibly good, and the stats show that.

The Finalists for worst Steeler in coverage for 2019 are:

Mike Hilton
Devin Bush
Terrell Edmunds

My choice is Mike Hilton. Hilton is worse in man coverage than Edmunds, and while Hilton is great in short zone and covering underneath routes, Edmunds is great at that too. Edmunds struggles reading the ball in the air and has some bad highlights because of it, but Edmunds is back there taking that role in large part because guys like Hilton are even worse covering players deep. Devin Bush improved as the season went on, and Hilton and Edmunds each gave up 3 TDs, so the TD allowed gap isn’t as big as it was against Barron and Williams.

In the end, for me, the yards per cover snap is an important stat, and Hilton was the worst on the team, worse than Kameron Kelly and Artie Burns. He was the worst even though the Steelers were protecting him and letting him play to his strengths. Mike Tomlin values Hilton’s run defense and blitzing, and with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds behind him, the coaches are confident in letting both him and Joe Haden continue to gamble to make plays.

What are your thoughts? Who is your choice, and why?