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Film Room: The Evolution of the 2019 Steelers secondary, Part 1: A tale of three safeties

The Steelers started three free safeties in the first three weeks, and the defense suffered for it.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans

The Steelers hired Teryl Austin after the disappointing 2018 season, giving him the title of senior defensive assistant as well as secondary coach. The coach wasn’t all that would change, as the Steelers brought in Steven Nelson to start across from Joe Haden and would later trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

This film series is going to look at the season and the evolution of the secondary in both talent and scheme over the course of the season, starting with the first three games, with each contest having a different starting free safety.

Week 1: Kam Kelly v Tom Brady

Sean Davis injured his ankle in the Steelers third preseason game and ended up missing the season opener against New England. As a result, XFL standout Kam Kelly started at free safety in his first NFL game, facing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It didn’t go well.

Week 1, 1st quarter, 4:55. Josh Gordon is the slot WR just off the line to the top of the screen.

Josh Gordon’s TD to give the Patriots their initial lead. Notice two things: First, Steven Nelson blitzes and doesn’t cover Josh Gordon. Second, Kam Kelly is the safety to the top of the screen, backing up to start the play, just watch him on the play.

Now look at right before the play starts. Nelson and Kelly are both to the right side of the screen.

That’s Seven Nelson letting Kam Kelly know he’s blitzing, and Kelly needs to pick up Gordon. Kelly doesn’t get the message, and backs up instead. This was Steven Nelson’s first and last blitz of the 2019 season. He would never do it again.

Week 1, 3rd quarter, 4:39 Josh Gordon is in the slot to the bottom of the screen,

Mike Hilton is not good at carrying WRs deep, even when it isn’t Josh Gordon. Here Gordon burns Hilton and Kam Kelly does a terrible job giving him help over the top. Terrell Edmunds has to come from the other safety spot to tackle Gordon.

Week 1, 2nd quarter, 3:54. Philip Dorsett is on the line, 2nd WR from the top of the screen.

Hilton again struggles carrying a WR deep and this time Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety. Edmunds isn’t the best deep zone safety, he’s even worse in the middle, and it’s another TD.

The Steelers would try mixing things up, like this play where they moved Edmunds to the slot and Hilton to safety in an effort to get better deep coverage from the slot.

They would try Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton at safety, move Kelly into the slot, run cover-3 and even quarters to minimize the abuse of the secondary. Nothing worked.

Week 1, 3rd quarter, 8:13. Philip Dorsett is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This time the Steelers run quarters, because at least in quarters you won’t get beat deep... But Kam Kelly steps up to meet a go route and Dorsett is gone.

The Steelers weren’t going to win this game with how poorly the offense played, but the secondary consistently handed Tom Brady easy big plays. It’s also important to note the schemes were very simple in Week 1, with Kelly and Devin Bush in their first NFL action, as well as Mark Barron and Steven Nelson in their first games as Steelers, there wasn’t a lot of room for trickery.

Week 2: Sean Davis returns.

After Kam Kelly was torn apart by Tom Brady in Week 1, the Steelers were fortunate to get Sean Davis back in Week 2 in time to face Russell Wilson, Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf.

Week 2, 1st quarter, 12:21. Mike Hilton is the slot DB to the bottom of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is behind him.

Hilton shows man coverage in motion, but once he returns, Edmunds lines up over Tyler Lockett and Hilton blitzes, forcing a quick throw which falls incomplete. With Sean Davis at free safety, the Steelers would run a lot of cover-1, trusting Davis to cover the entire field while the Steelers blitzed the Seahawks.

Week 2, 1st quarter, 7:54. Mike Hilton is the slot DB to the bottom of the screen, Edmunds is the safety to the bottom of the screen.

Here is one of the vulnerabilities of this aggressive blitzing. Russell Wilson reads the blitz and gets the ball to Tyler Lockett, who is able to dodge Edmunds coming from farther away this time, and it’s a big play. On both of these plays you can see how much ground Sean Davis covers at free safety. He wasn’t a great player, but his ability to get to the play limited the risk when the Steelers blitzed.

Week 2, 1st quarter, 7:16. Terrell Edmunds is lined up behind Bud Dupree.

One of the main benefits of Sean Davis being a good cover-1 safety is it allowed Terrell Edmunds to come up to the line of scrimmage in run support and coverage. Here Edmunds forces the RB outside while helping keep Vince Williams clean, and they share the tackle.

Week 2, 2nd quarter, 12:26. Terrell Edmunds is the slot DB.

While Mike Hilton struggled carrying WRs deep, Edmunds is much better at it with his elite athleticism. He’s not a cornerback, but he stays with Lockett and breaks up the pass.

Week 2, 4th quarter, 7:72. Edmunds is the slot DB.

Again Edmunds is on one of Seattle’s top receivers and he carries Metcalf deep, getting a hand in to break up the initial catch, but Metcalf is able to reel in the ball for a touchdown. This play is with Kam Kelly back in, and you can see how far away he is at the catch point. It would be much riskier throwing that pass with Sean Davis at safety because of his speed to the ball.

Sean Davis was injured on the first drive of the second half and would leave the game later. Before he was hurt, the Steelers led 10-7. After his injury, the Seahawks offense had more success on deep throws, the Steelers stopped blitzing, and the Seahawks won the game.

Week 3: The Minkah Fitzpatrick era begins.

With Sean Davis going on injured reserve, the Steelers were faced with either going back to the the safety play they had in Week 1, or bringing in someone new. The Steelers responded by trading a first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

It is important to note at the time of the trade, Minkah Fitzpatrick was considered a better slot defensive back and many viewed him as a better strong safety than free safety.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 14:29. Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety.

Minkah Fitzpatrick lines up between Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree on the line of scrimmage. The entire team bites on play action and Terrell Edmunds gets to run down George Kittle. Edmunds isn’t a good deep safety, but he is an incredible athlete. If he can see his target, he gets there fast, meeting Kittle at the catch point and denying any yards after the catch.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 00:55. Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety.

This time Minkah Fitzpatrick blitzes from the bottom of the screen. You can see his quickness, but he doesn’t deal well with the blocker. The Steelers get burned on play action, this time on a deep ball to fullback Kyle Juszczyk. This is one of 5 deep balls (15+ yards in the air) the 49ers attempted in this game. With Minkah Fitzpatrick blitzing, the 49ers completed 3 of 4 for 72 yards. They only attempted one with Fitzpatrick deep.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 9:25. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety.

This is the only deep pass the 49ers would try with Fitzpatrick deep, and at 16 yards, it’s barely a deep pass. The Steelers ran single deep safety almost exclusively in this game, alternating Edmunds and Fitzpatrick as the deep safety.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 4:52. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety, barely on screen at the start.

What stands out to me is how fluidly Minkah Fitzpatrick moves at free safety during the play, both in this play and the one above. He reads the flow of the play beautifully and his movement keeps him in position to attack the play.

Minkah Fitzpatrick blitzed seven times in Week 3, and at the end of the season he would have a total of seven blitzes. Like Steven Nelson, Minkah Fitzpatrick only blitzed in one game all year, both of them it was their first game. Teryl Austin and Keith Butler didn’t make those same mistakes in more than one game. Butler has been criticized in the past for putting DBs in tough spots and setting them up for failure. This wasn’t the case in 2019.

The Takeaway

To start the 2019 season, we saw the Steelers try a lot of vanilla coverages to try and stop the Patriots deep passes in Week 1 and fail due to the inexperience in key spots on the defense and Kam Kelly’s limitations. In Weeks 2 and 3, the Steelers ran cover-1 heavily, with Sean Davis in Week 2 and alternating Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick in Week 3.

The defense was plagued by predictability, slow recovery from play-action fakes and the rotating door at free safety.

In Week 4, the Steelers defense would take their first real steps as the defense we saw the rest of the year. The team would win eight of the next ten games on the back of the defense going from a predictable, vanilla defense to one of the most creative coverage schemes in the NFL.

In the next part of this film room series, we’ll look at weeks 4-6.