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Film Room: The Evolution of the 2019 Steelers secondary, Part 4: Cleveland exposes Pittsburgh’s defense

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After three weeks of domination, the Steelers secondary was solved by the Browns.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Jets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

In week eleven of the 2019 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers went on the road to Cleveland to face the Browns. The Steelers red-hot defense had brought them from 0-3 to a 5-4 record, while the Browns had just won their 3rd game to improve to 3-6. The Cleveland Browns talented offense had been a huge disappointment, scoring 20+ points in only 3 of their 9 games, while the Steelers injury-riddled offense had reached 20 points in 7 of their 9 games.

The Browns would score 20+ points for the 4th time in Week 11, while also being the first team since MInkah Fitzpatrick joined the Steelers to not commit a turnover when facing the black and gold.

This 4th installment of our look at the Steelers 2019 secondary will look at both games the Steelers played against the Browns, looking at how the Browns successfully attacked the secondary, and how the Steelers responded.

Exploiting aggressive play in Week 11

The Browns attacked the Steelers deep early on in Week 11, completing 3 of 4 deep balls in the first half, the most first half deep receptions the Steelers gave up all season.

Week 11, 1st quarter, 11:34. Odell Beckham Jr. is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

Earlier in this film series we showed how teams would attack Minkah Fitzpatrick by running a deep route at him, then throw to an in-cutting route underneath the deep route. Cleveland takes the opposite tact here, sending a route towards Fitzpatrick to free up a one-on-one match-up between Beckham Jr. and Steven Nelson. Nelson has outside leverage here, and with no help to the middle, Baker Mayfield has a lot of grass to target. Not many cornerbacks are going to win a situation like this against Odell Beckham Jr. and the play sets the stage for an early Cleveland lead.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 13:19. Mike Hilton is the slot DB to the bottom of the screen, Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety.

The Browns run 2 routes to the sideline, one cutting in front of Fitzpatrick, and slip the slot receiver past him to the inside, getting another one-on-one deep, this time with Mike Hilton defending KhaDarel Hodge. With Minkah Fitzpatrick too far forward to help, the Browns can attack Mike Hilton at his weakest—in deep man coverage.

The Steelers hadn’t allowed a 40+ yard play from the time Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the Steelers through Week 10. The Browns had two in their first four drives.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 10:04, 3rd and 7. Mike Hilton is the CB to the bottom of the screen on the line, Joe Haden is behind him, and Minkah Fitzpatrick is the safety in the deep middle.

Minkah Fitzpatrick comes up to cover Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Hilton stays short after passing off Jarvis Landry to Terrell Edmunds and it leaves Joe Haden one-on-one with KhaDarel Hodge for four seconds. Haden is called for pass interference, turning 3rd and goal at the 7 into the Browns second 1st and goal at the 1 yard line.

To the top of the screen you see Steven Nelson in the end zone playing zone, while at the bottom of the screen, Joe Haden is all alone with a lot of grass to cover.

If Hilton or Fitzpatrick had dropped into a deeper zone on their side of the field, Haden would have had help and the Browns are likely kicking a field goal. Instead, the following play happened.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 9:59, 1st and 1. Joe Haden is the CB to the bottom of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the 2nd from the bottom.

This play is awful. Two Browns are wide open in the end zone and it’s an easy pitch and catch for a 14-0 lead. Terrell Edmunds and Joe Haden follow Pharoah Brown while the linebackers bite on the play action to Kareem Hunt, Minkah Fitzpatrick follows Baker Mayfield’s initial look to the right, and no one covers Jarvis Landry.

Week 11, 4th quarter, 5:33. Deja-vu.

This is the same play Cleveland ran when Haden got called for interference. Again the safeties cover the crossers, Hilton stays up doubling Beckham Jr. and Cleveland exploits the man coverage on an extended play. Mark Barron gives up a TD to backup TE Stephen Carlson after covering him for five seconds. Once again, the receiver is able to use the lack of help to put the defender in a tough spot.

The Browns got two defenders on Odell Beckham Jr. and were able to attack the open space behind him both times. All three of the Browns touchdowns in Week 11 were set up by attacking the aggressiveness of the Steelers secondary.

The Steelers did make in-game adjustments. The big plays stopped after the second drive when the Steelers moved Minkah Fitzpatrick into deep zone coverage. But with a 14-point lead, the Browns were able to run the ball and play a field position game with the Steelers anemic offense. As we covered in previous parts of this series, when Minkah Fitzpatrick was the deepest defender, the Steelers were vulnerable to passes underneath.

Attacking underneath in Week 13

When the Browns came to Pittsburgh in Week 13, the Steelers were determined not to get beat deep like they were in Week 11, and they didn’t. In the first half of the Week 11 matchup the Browns completed 3 of 4 deep balls for 108 yards. The rest of that game and the week 13 rematch they completed 2 of 11 deep balls for 42 yards and an interception.

With the Steelers dropping Minkah Fitzpatrick deep to take away the deep passes, the Browns went back to one of the staple methods of attacking the Steelers secondary from early in the season.

Week 13, 1st quarter, 12:18. Steven Nelson is the CB to the top of the screen, lined up across from Browns TE Stephen Carlson.

With Fitzpatrick in deep zone, the Browns go right at Steven Nelson with an in-cutting route from a TE lined up wide. Nelson doesn’t break on these routes well, he isn’t an aggressive defender and he isn’t the DB you want trying to bring down a bigger, more powerful player. All this adds up to an easy catch and run for the Browns.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 9:26. Steven Nelson again to the top, same play for the Browns.

Steven Nelson is ready for it this time, but even with him jumping the play Carlson makes the catch for a seven yard gain.

It wasn’t just Steven Nelson getting targeted though.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 7:30 Mark Barron is the slot defender to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the safety behind him.

Barron blitzes, leaving Edmunds to cover the slot, and while he gets a hand on the ball, Jarvis Landry is able to bring in the catch. But there is more to this play, specifically, before the play.

The Browns have seen the Steelers switching assignments across the formation, they have seen Edmunds taking over mismatches from linebackers, and they have a good idea of how to attack the Steelers using these tendencies. Here Mark Barron and Terrell Edmunds don’t convince anyone Edmunds is in deep zone and Barron is in man on Jarvis Landry. The Browns know Edmunds is going to cover Landry and Barron is going to blitz.

At the snap, the running back doesn’t read the rush but just comes across the formation to pick up Barron. Meanwhile, in spite of Barron showing inside leverage before the snap, the Browns run an in-cut with Landry taking the quick yards in front of Edmunds.

The Browns used motion to set up this exact defensive situation with a play designed to exploit it.

Adapting to the Browns attack

While in Week 11 the Steelers adapted to the Browns deep balls by dropping Minkah Fitzpatrick into deep zone, in Week 13 the Steelers had to solve the Browns underneath attacks without moving Minkah up and compromising their deep ball defense.

Week 13, 2nd quarter, 2:07. Steven Nelson is on the 30 yard line to the bottom of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is also on the 30 yard line, to the middle of the play.

The Browns have a running back and two receivers tight together to the bottom of the screen. They run a shallow cross from the outside, looking to exploit Steven Nelson. The Steelers are ready for it, switching Terrell Edmunds onto Odell Beckham Jr. and dropping Nelson into a middle zone, replacing Edmunds. Nelson follows the quarterback’s eyes and forces a tough throw downfield which falls incomplete.

When executed well, these switches are an enormous benefit to the defense. Instead of Nelson being exploited for his most consistent weakness, he’s dropping into a deeper zone which is one of his best uses.

The Steelers weren’t content to just thwart the Browns schemes, they also baited them into poor plays.

Week 13, 4th quarter, 7:11, 2nd and 10. Mark Barron is the LB toward the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the safety behind him.

Barron shows blitz, then moves to cover Kareem Hunt before finally rushing in a delayed blitz. Baker Mayfield, seeing Barron abandon Kareem Hunt, dumps it off only to have Terrell Edmunds tackle Hunt for no gain.

This was a key drive in this game. The Browns had just scored a field goal to make it a one-score game, and then on the first play of the Steelers drive Devlin Hodges was intercepted and the Browns were 30 yards from tying the game. This play set up third and long, and the Steelers would get a sack to push the Browns out of field goal range.

The cover-3 “tent” baffles the Browns

In part 2 of this series we looked at an interesting formation the Steelers used in Week 6, a formation which drew from several different defensive ideas and, while it didn’t work the best in Week 6, it didn’t go away entirely either.

With the Browns threatening deep balls and attacking underneath, the Steelers would bring it back out in Cleveland.

Week 11, 1st quarter, 5:50, 3rd and 11. Look at how the defensive personnel move around.

Dropping Cameron Sutton deep lets Minkah Fitzpatrick play the middle of the field. On this play the Browns dump the ball off to Kareen Hunt who converts for the first down. Steven Nelson is the shallow outside defender to the bottom of the screen, and he isn’t any help here at all. Mark Barron misses the initial tackle and Hunt is able to gain the 11 yards he needs.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 6:30, 3rd and 10.

This is the first time the “tent” (seriously, it looks like a tent) is formed the way it will show up the most in the last four weeks. The Steelers are in their dime package. Mike Hilton and Mark Barron take the shallow outside zones. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds move forward at the snap to cover the middle, standing on the first down line. Cam Sutton drops from the slot to really deep middle while Joe Haden and Steven Nelson drop into the deep outside zones. Here the Browns attack underneath the formation like they did above, but Hilton makes the tackle, and the Browns gain 6 when they needed 10.

Week 13, 2nd quarter, 0:16.

The Browns take a deep shot, and Cam Sutton shows his value as the deep defender. He finds Odell Beckham Jr., takes over his route, and eliminates any shot at a big play.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 4:59, 2nd and 20.

The Steelers get pressure on this play, and end up with a sack, but look at the coverage. There is nowhere for Baker Mayfield to throw the ball even if he wasn’t under pressure. The nature of this formation makes it great for defending the sidelines with a shallow and deep defender on each side.

Week 13, 4th quarter, 1:45.

It’s the 2-minute drill so the Steelers break out the tent. The Browns try to get the ball to Jarvins Landry, as Mike Hilton has left the area to defend outside. Minkah Fitzpatrick is defending the middle though, and he crashes the route and breaks up the pass. Easily enough that he is instantly upset with himself for not gong for the interception.

That’s not the kind of mistake Minkah Fitzpatrick is likely to repeat.

Week 13, 4th quarter, 1:17.

We’ll end this film room with the play that ended Cleveland’s chance at a series sweep, and effectively ended their playoff hopes. Joe Haden intercepts an overthrown ball to send the victory formation onto the field for the Steelers. There’s more to this play though, let’s look at a different angle.

If that throw is where Jarvis Landry can catch it, Minkah Fitzpatrick is picking it off. If Jarvis Landry was running to where the ball was thrown and the ball is thrown less high than it was, Minkah Fitzpatrick is likely picking it off.

Check out the ground Fitzpatrick covers in this mock up of the play.

These last two plays show why this formation works so well. When Minkah Fitzpatrick dominates the middle of the field, teams cannot attack the obvious gaps in the defense because of him. With rangy athletes in the middle this defense is very hard to attack, and the more Cleveland struggled against it, the more the Steelers used it.

The takeaway

The Cleveland Browns had a better game plan to attack the Steelers secondary than any other team the Steelers had faced, and while it got them an early lead in Week 11 which they turned into a win, the Steelers adapted and evolved to cover the holes in their defense and came out stronger for it.

The growth of their long yardage “tent” defense would forge a big part of their defensive identity the rest of the season. If the Steelers got teams into a long yardage situation, their drive was most likely over.

Next week we’ll finish this film series, covering the last 4 games of the season.