Most Steelers fans, especially those who have hung around BTSC a while, can remember the criticism directed at Keith Butler and the defensive staff a few seasons ago for their lack of creativity, particularly when it came to coverage matchups and disguises.
The poster-child, so to speak, for that line of thinking came on a crucial play in the 33-30 loss to the Chargers in 2018. It was a game in which the Steelers were torched by Phillip Rivers and his favorite target that night, receiver Keenan Allen. On a 3rd and 4 from the Pittsburgh 34 with 1:12 remaining, Los Angeles got Allen matched up one-on-one against inside linebacker Jon Bostic, leading to a crucial conversion and the eventual game-winning field goal:
In fairness to Butler, sub-package players Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton were unavailable for that Chargers game, leaving few options in passing situations. Still, Butler was raked over the coals. A few weeks later, when the Steelers failed to qualify for the playoffs, a cacophony of voices called for Butler to be fired. The Allen-Bostic play was referenced ad nauseum.
Fast forward eighteen months. As I write this article, the Steelers possess one of the best all-around defenses in the NFL. There are no calls for Butler’s job (those voices are bellowing about Randy Fichtner on the other side of the ball) and comparisons are being made between the current defense and its legendary 2008 counterpart. It’s been quite the transition.
What changed? For starters, Bostic, safety Sean Davis and corner Artie Burns have all departed. In their places are Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson, each of whom represents a significant upgrade. T.J. Watt has blossomed into a star, Bud Dupree had a breakout 2019 season and Terrell Edmunds improved in his second year. The talent is better, no question.
Keith Butler is better, too. It’s funny how improved talent creates the perception of better coaching. In this case, both Butler and the talent have evolved. The Steelers gave Butler better players to work with and, with the addition of Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley as defensive assistants, better coaches as well. The moves have paid dividends. Together, Butler, the staff and their upgraded personnel have made tremendous progress.
One area where that progress is especially evident involves coverage disguise. The Steelers have transformed from a defense whose coverages, as Allen insinuated after that 2018 Chargers game, were easy to predict to one that creates deception like a grifter. This article examines those disguises and how the Steelers put them to use.
To begin, it should be noted that the Steelers play a variety of coverages, from cover-1 through cover-6, as well as some things that, as I study them on film, I’m not sure what to call them. For the sake of brevity, I won’t go through all of these coverages but I’ve provided links to some explanations if you want clarification on how each works:
The Steelers line up in a lot of two-high shells but they are not what I would call a base cover-2 defense. Increasingly, they have come to favor cover-6, which features a cover-2 look to the weak side or boundary and cover-4 to the passing strength or field.
Regardless of how the Steelers initially align, chances are fairly good they will rotate to a different look during, or just prior to, the snap. One thing Butler has learned is NFL quarterbacks are simply too good to be presented a steady diet of vanilla coverages. Here are some examples of how he and the staff move from one look to another in an effort to confuse them:
Below we see a pre-snap image from the game versus the Rams last season. The Steelers align in what looks like a fairly standard cover-6. They appear to be playing cover-4 to the field, with Steven Nelson and Minkah Fitzpatrick looking to match the vertical routes and dime players Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton providing help underneath. To the boundary, it’s a cover-2 look with corner Joe Haden squatting in the flat and safety Terrell Edmunds playing half the field:
The Rams are expecting cover-6. How do we know? They run a flat-fade concept, a common cover-2 beater, to the boundary and a Drive route to the field. Quarterback Jared Goff is anticipating Nelson will run with the #1 receiver (the vertical route) and Sutton will stay on #2, leaving an easy throw to #3 in the soft zone. Watch what the Steelers do, however:
They rotate to a cover-1 “robber” look, with the underneath defenders locked on and Fitzpatrick moving back to the free safety role. Edmunds, meanwhile, drops down to “rob” the middle of the field. He is reading Goff’s eyes and looking to jump the first thing that shows. This, and the man coverage provided by Hilton, turns an easy throw to #3 into a dangerous throw against double coverage. Goff has to pull back and reload before the rush closes in. He throws hurriedly to the crosser behind Edmunds and the pass is broken up by Cam Sutton.
This is a great example of the Steelers being one move ahead of LA on the chess board. They present the Rams with a look they are expecting only to jump into something different at the snap, forcing a dangerous throw that is almost intercepted.
Here is another clip from that game against the Rams. Anyone who has watched the Steelers play defense the past few seasons knows they like to bring slot corner Mike Hilton off the edge in their nickel package. Hilton is a good blitzer and a great tackler, and the Steelers do a nice job sending him from different looks.
Often, when Hilton comes, they play cover-1 behind the stunt. This is the look they present LA below, with Hilton (circled) creeping down out of the slot, Edmunds (the field safety) poised to take over Hilton’s receiver and Mark Barron (the near backer) on #3. The remaining secondary players are topping their men in what looks like a man-free configuration:
It’s not. Hilton yo-yos at the snap and bounces back into the flat while Fitzpatrick (the boundary safety) rotates to the deep middle. The corners run with their respective vertical routes. Edmunds creeps down to become the hook player opposite Barron while Cam Sutton falls off the left edge to cover the flat. This is a classic four-under, three-deep cover-3 zone:
Common routes for defeating this coverage include slant-flat, which puts a horizontal stretch on the flat player, and four verts, which sends four receivers down the field against the three deep defenders. The Rams run three verts and a ten-yard hook, a route concept that plays right into the hands of the cover-3 defense. Jared Goff, again confused, cannot find anyone open and dumps an errant pass to his late-releasing back for an incompletion.
It’s another winning chess move for Coach Butler and company.
Here’s a coverage disguise from last season's game against the Ravens in Pittsburgh that precipitated a long discussion among some of the coaches I know. I sent the clip in a text to about a dozen guys and asked for their thoughts on what the Steelers were doing. There were a host of opinions, but no consensus. No matter what the Steelers call it, one local coach captured the spirit of the thing:
Often, they don’t. That’s the case here with Lamar Jackson. There’s so much going on, from the twist up front to the pre-snap movement in the secondary, Jackson simply unloads the ball the moment he sees what he believes is an open receiver in tight end Mark Andrews. Thanks to a little black (and gold) magic, Andrews is not actually open. It’s an illusion conjured up by Butler. The pass is broken up by Fitzpatrick and intercepted by Kameron Kelly:
Let’s look closer at what’s happening here. Pre-snap, Kelly and Terrell Edmunds are swapping assignments, with Kelly rotating out of the slot to join Fitzpatrick in a two-high shell and Edmunds dropping down to the linebacker level (as he often does). Once the ball is snapped, my best guess is the Steelers are playing a version of what some teams call “Stress,” a coverage specific to 3x1 structures from an offense:
In Stress, the field safety (Fitzpatrick) carries the #3 receiver (Andrews) on anything vertical while the field corner (Nelson) and slot corner (Sutton) combo the #1 and #2 receivers. Nelson will carry anything vertical from #1 (which he does) and Sutton will take #2 on anything out and up. Here, #2 goes inside so Sutton passes him off. Fitzpatrick is reading Andrews’ release, which allows him to drive quickly on the throw. Fitzpatrick, Sutton and Nelson are all playing this coverage as though it’s Stress.
On the back side in Stress, Haden and Kelly would bracket the single receiver. Stress is designed to take away a team’s best receiver when they try to single him up on the weak side of trips (thus the bracket). It’s a good coverage to use against an elite receiver or a team which likes to throw weak against a defense that rotates their coverage to trips. If it is true Stress though, Haden should be playing with better outside leverage to funnel the receiver towards Kelly, and Kelly should at least be peeking in his direction. Still, of all the coverages I am familiar with, this seems most consistent with Stress.
Whatever it is, my dear friend Paul Callahan put it best in his text: “How do the QBs ever figure that ________ out.”
Disguising zone at the goal line
NFL teams have long favored man-to-man schemes near the goal line because they create tight windows in which to throw and, with the reduced amount of field, defenders don’t have as much ground to cover. Offenses counter those man schemes with horizontal routes that allow receivers to run away from defenders or by using picks and rubs to free them from coverage.
To compensate, defenses are now starting to mask their goal-line looks. One way the Steelers do this is to show man but play zone. Here is an example of this from the game at Arizona last season. In the image below, we see the Steelers in a pre-snap “man” look, with the arrows indicating receivers to whom defenders appear to be assigned and the circled players free to provide help:
As you see in the GIF, Arizona runs a rub for the #1 receiver at the bottom of the screen. They are trying to free him up for an easy throw from quarterback Kyler Murray by bringing him under the #2 receiver and forcing corner Joe Haden, who they anticipate will be in man coverage, to go over top of the rub. It’s not man, however, but a match-zone instead.
Haden has the first receiver breaking out, so when he sees #1 release inside, he lets him go and picks up #2 on the quick out. The slot corner (Hilton) has the opposite responsibility. Hilton releases #2, sits on #1 and passes him to Cam Sutton as he continues inside. The safety (Fitzpatrick) sinks to #3 then releases him when Murray, unable to throw the rub route on time, scrambles out of the pocket.
On the other side, the Steelers bracket Larry Fitzgerald with the corner and safety and Mark Barron picks up the running back on the late release:
This coverage has many of the elements of the Stress look shown in the segment above, with the bracket to the single receiver, the safety reading #3 to the trips, and combo coverage on #1 and #2. The Steelers were the fourth best team in the NFL last season in opponent red zone scoring percentage, up from 16th in 2018. As we see here, better coverage disguise from the staff and effective communication from the players are likely responsible for the improvement.
Finally, we get to another interesting disguise which was first pointed out to me by Geoffrey Benedict a couple of months ago (thank you, Geoffrey!). This is a look the Steelers used several times in Week 13 against the Browns, particularly in long-yardage situations, and again in Week 16 against the Jets. It is either a modified cover-3 or an interesting twist on Tampa-2 (this is a great read on the Tampa-2, by the way, featuring some vintage footage of Jack Lambert and the Steel Curtain defense).
Generally speaking, the coverage embodies a philosophy known as “Sticks,” whereby defenders sink to the first-down marker in a long-yardage situation, forcing the offense to throw over them while allowing them to rally to the ball against anything underneath.
“Sticks” works well when a defense can get to the quarterback quickly, freeing coverage players to sit aggressively at the line-to-gain without getting stretched vertically by slower-developing deep routes. It can stem from any pre-snap configuration, provided defenders build a wall in the five basic zones at the markers. They must cover both sideline areas (numbers to sideline), both hook areas (hash to numbers) and the middle of the field, with the sixth and seventh defenders either locking on specific receivers or adding extra protection at the sticks.
Here, the Steelers show a soft cover-2 look on a 3rd and 14 play from the week 13 game against the Browns:
The area to attack against this look is the space between the corner and the safety along the sideline or deep down the middle between the safeties. The Steelers take those routes away with their late rotation and defend the sticks with a wall of players:
The safeties sit at the sticks between the numbers and the hashes while Cam Sutton rotates from the second level to man the deep middle. The Steelers wind up with seven defenders stretched across the field within five yards of the markers. Earlier in the game, they forced a strip-sack of quarterback Baker Mayfield using this same disguise. Here, however, Mayfield escapes the pocket and completes a difficult throw to receiver Jarvis Landry along the sideline. Had the Steelers contained Mayfield, his only options were to check the ball down, throw it away, or eat it for another sack.
As we can see, “Sticks,” whether it be cover-3 or Tampa-2, is an effective way for the Steelers to disguise their coverage in long yardage situations.
The key to making any of this work is proper communication in the secondary. The Steelers were plagued by communication issues prior to Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival. Fitzpatrick’s value is seen in what he does physically, but also, as evidenced here, by what he brings to the defense from a mental standpoint. How the defense communicates in order to disguise blitzes, coverages, and execute schemes in general is a topic for a forthcoming article. For now, enjoy the sleight of hand featured here and how it has helped turn the Steelers’ defense into one of the elite units in the league.