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Film Room: The evolution of the 2019 Steelers secondary, Part 5: Closing out 2019 and looking forward to 2020

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The end of the 2019 season gives a lot of hope for the defense in 2020, and also what needs to improve.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

This is the final installment of this film series looking back at the 2019 Steelers secondary and how the schemes evolved throughout the season to fit the personnel. This final installment will look at the end of the season when things fell apart for the Steelers. We’ll see how the defense tried to carry the team to victory, we’ll also look at some things I wasn’t able to fit into other film rooms, and I’ll give you my thoughts on what direction I think the Steelers are likely to take this defense in the future.

Before diving into the final four games of 2019, I want to point out this film series covers 70 of the 1084 defensive plays from this past season. I tried to use plays which showed trends and gave an over-arcing view of the defense, but at best this film series is just a small portion of the story. I hope it has been informative and enjoyable. I know I’ve enjoyed making it.


Run defense from the nickle and safety spots.

For the most part, this film series has ignored run support entirely, but it is an important part of every defensive back’s job. All of the Steelers defensive backs are important in the run game, but the nickle back and safeties are the most important.

Week 14, 1st quarter, 4:07. To the right side of the screen, watch Bud Dupree (#48), Terrell Edmunds (#34) and Mike Hilton (#28), in that order.

Bud Dupree is his usual dominant self on this run play, driving the guard back, keeping his outside arm free, and using it to close off the first run lane. As the runner looks to follow his lead blocker there is still no opening, but Edmunds is able to meet the blocker in the hole and easily close it off. Edmunds gains outside position on the blocker and initiates the contact to keep himself in the run lane. He won the block so there’s nowhere for the runner to go but outside.

This brings us to Mike Hilton. The Cardinals get their left tackle on Mike Hilton, an 8 inch height and over 100 lb. weight difference. Hilton is able to keep in the play, he absorbs a lot of the lineman’s momentum, but is able to hold the outside and force the runner into the sideline where Terrell Edmunds pushes him out of bounds for no gain.

That’s two offensive lineman and a RB against Bud Dupree, Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds, and the Steelers won all three match-ups.

One of the reasons Mike Hilton is the Steelers nickle back is because of how good he is blitzing and playing the run. Those are enormous parts of the nickle DB’s job in the Steelers defense. He’s not the best cover guy in the secondary, but Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, Cameron Sutton, even Minkah Fitzpatrick would be hard-pressed to make this particular play, and that’s why Mike Hilton is the Steelers nickle back.

Week 14, 2nd quarter, 12:47. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety in the middle of the field.

Minkah Fitzpatrick is a film room junkie who takes the knowledge and applies it to the game at an elite level. He reads the run right off the bat, and starts moving to take away the outside run. With both Mark Barron and Terrell Edmunds crashing inside, Kyler Murray keeps the ball, expecting only Steven Nelson will be between him and a touchdown. Instead he loses yards as Minkah Fitzpatrick has put himself in position to make an easy stop.

This may give you flashbacks to Troy Polamalu, and how he would see what was going to happen and get to the right spot to blow up the play. Minkah Fitzpatrick has the same feel.

Week 16, 3rd quarter, 1:12. Terrell Edmunds (#34) is on the left side of the screen, just inside Bud Dupree (#48).

Edmunds takes on the Jets right guard on this inside run. He holds his ground pretty well, giving up 2 yards to the much bigger blocker. But he stays in the lane, keeping Devin Bush clean so Bush can make the tackle.

Now I want you to watch Javon Hargrave, the Steelers nose tackle, who is next to Edmunds at the snap. Hargrave also gets driven back 2 yards. I think Edmunds did pretty well here.

Late in the season, teams committed more and more to the run game when facing the Steelers. They realized the Steelers offense was unlikely to win a field position game, and turnovers from interceptions and strip sacks were driving the Steelers scoring.

During those weeks the Steelers were one of the best run defenses in the NFL, going small to pull Vince Williams off the field in favor of Mike Hilton didn’t help. While the Steelers pass rush and surge in interceptions are the big story of the Steelers 2019 defense, toward the end of the season, they were a really difficult team to run on as well.


Cam Sutton and Steven Nelson

Earlier in this series I showed Steven Nelson’s vulnerability to in-cutting routes and his slowness breaking on the ball. I haven’t shown much of his good play, and I haven’t shown much of Cameron Sutton at all.

Week 17, 1st quarter, 2:47. Steven Nelson is the CB to the bottom of the screen

The Ravens isolate Nelson on Jaleel Scott, a 6’5” 210 lb. wide receiver. Nelson has no help at all, but he is able to hold his own physically against a much bigger player and prevent the catch, stay right in his chest, and prevent the catch.

This is how you start 15 games without giving up a single touchdown.

Week 15, 1st quarter, 1:55. Steven Nelson is the slot DB to the bottom of the screen.

The Bills get Nelson inside in man coverage. He plays with heavy outside leverage, but John Brown cuts right through him and is wide open for a 10 yard gain. This play was on 4th and 6th. Nelson doesn’t change directions well here, and he doesn’t do a good job of denying Brown an outside release even with his outside leverage.

Week 15, 2nd quarter, 10:11. Steven Nelson is the CB to the top of the screen.

Here Nelson shows something he hadn’t for most of the season, breaking on the ball and tackling the catch. I hope to see more of this in 2020. If Steven Nelson does better defending these underneath cuts, he could be a truly great corner.

Week 14, 1st quarter, 12:34. Cameron Sutton is the slot DB to the top of the screen, starting on the hash marks.

Sutton is matched up against Larry Fitzgerald here, and the Cardinals go after the mismatch of a #4 corner on a future Hall of Fame receiver. Even though Sutton turns to run with Fitzgerald and has his back to the quarterback, he stops on a dime, turns, and is able to get a hand in to mess up the play.

Sutton gets his hand on the receiver’s arm, pushing it down and eliminating any chance of Fitzgerald keeping the ball off the turf.

Week 14, 2nd quarter, 5:33, Cameron Sutton is the slot DB to the bottom of the screen.

Cameron Sutton showing he can come up and make a tackle as well.

Cameron Sutton was good in coverage, but he added to his value by joining Terrell Edmunds as the two players who moved the most at the snap to disguise the defense.

Week 17, 1st quarter, 8:43. Cameron Sutton starts 4th from the bottom, up near the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers show an overload blitz to the offenses’ left (bottom of screen). There are 4 defenders and 2 receivers, with 3 defenders and 3 receivers to the offenses’ right (top of screen). But this isn’t what happens at the snap. Cameron Sutton comes across the formation to guard the tight end, and the blitz comes from the offensive right.

The result is an offensive line and quarter back who don’t know what is going on.

Mike Hilton gets a free run to the quarterback while three lineman block Bud Dupree and Cam Heyward. Cam Sutton crossing the field to cover the tight end was key to this play. Of course, T.J. Watt destroying the right guard on a stunt didn’t hurt either. Notice Dupree and Heyward filling gaps to seal the QB in the pocket and you get a real sense of just how well this play was designed.

Watching this season in film, I kept thinking Steven Nelson and Cameron Sutton are very similar players. Both stay with receivers very well and can play the ball. Both are also not as physical as Joe Haden or Mike Hilton. They may line up at different positions, but the Steelers use them in similar ways, and when Nelson and Haden were both out late in Week 6, Sutton played Nelson’s side of the field and acquitted himself well.


Terrell Edmunds at deep safety

I’ve used a lot of plays to show Terrell Edmunds’ strengths and value to the Steelers defense. Late in the season, teams had figured out his weakness in deep zone and exploited it more. When the Steelers went with 2 deep safeties, Edmunds’ side of the field was the one they targeted more.

Week 14, 3rd quarter, 8:13. Joe Haden is the CB to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the safety to the same side.

The Cardinals have Vince Williams in coverage, and run an out route his way to take advantage. Joe Haden reported he told Edmunds if they ran an out he was jumping it before the play, and you can see Edmunds pick up Haden’s man as soon as Haden breaks on the ball. Joe Haden was able to gamble on plays like this because of the safeties behind him. But it didn’t always work out.

Week 14, 4th quarter, 6:49. Joe Haden is the corner to the bottom of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the safety to his side.

This is the play everyone thinks of when they think Terrell Edmunds, the image of him going for the interception only for the ball to go over his hands and drop in for a touchdown. I don’t think I need to go over Edmunds’ part of the play, it stands out all on its own. He has to make this play; he fails and gives up a touchdown.

Let’s look at Joe Haden.

Joe Haden doesn’t defend this route well at all. Look at his lean and his back arm, he’s waiting for contact from David Johnson, but it doesn’t come, Johnson just runs outside and past Haden where he is wide open. Edmunds and Haden both react when the quarterback throws the ball, Haden is too far away to do anything, Edmunds fails to make a play on the ball.

Go back up to the full play and look to the top of the screen at Steven Nelson. Nelson carries his target deep and is right with him until the quarterback throws the ball. You will find a theme in this section of players not carrying receivers deep, giving the opposing offense a shot at Terrell Edmunds in his weakest area.

Week 15, 3rd quarter, 9:46. Steven Nelson is the CB to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety to his side (Cameron Sutton starts in the deep middle but moves up, that’s not Edmunds).

This is one of John Brown’s many catches of Week 15. The Steelers disguise this play really well, ending up in an old-school cover-2 look. There are five defenders right around the first down line with Joe Haden and Edmunds deep. Steven Nelson and Mark Barron both watch the underneath route and neither carry John Brown at all, letting him run free for a first down well in front of Terrell Edmunds. Steven Nelson has Barron near him, he cannot cheat up on that underneath route and let John Brown have an easy out route for a first down.

Week 15, 4th quarter, 6:49. Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety to the top of the screen. Joe Haden is the outside corner, Mark Barron is inside Haden.

This time it is Mark Barron who starts to cover the route, before ditching the tight end, coming back toward the underneath route. Terrell Edmunds is too far behind the tight end to pick him up and it is an easy touchdown. With Haden following the underneath route and the other side of the field carrying the deep receiver instead of passing them off to the safety, I put more of the blame for this one on Mark Barron.

No matter who is to blame, it is clear that teams started attacking Terrrell Edmunds by getting the players in front of him to cheat up and exposing Edmunds’ weakness in deep zone. Terrell Edmunds is a good strong safety and a great compliment to Minkah Fitzpatrick, but in the future the Steelers have to either shift Edmunds out of these deep zone coverages or make sure the other defenders carry receivers farther when they are on Edmunds’ side.


Revitalizing cover-1

The Steelers played a lot of cover-1 in 2019, blitzing Mike Hilton and Mark Barron a lot on those plays. By the end of the season it was getting predictable, and teams knew they could attack Steven Nelson on in-cutting routes and exploit the Steelers blitzes with quick slants from the slot.

The Steelers adapted by switching zone and man responsibilities in the play.

Week 16, 1st quarter, 5:45. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety.

I showed in Part 4 how Cleveland attacked Minkah Fitzpatrick by running a route underneath him, baiting him forward and throwing the deep route behind him. This time, when Joe Haden’s man cuts inside, Fitzpatrick jumps the route, and Sam Darnold throws the deep route, expecting a one on one with Steven Nelson trying to catch up from his outside leverage. Instead the wide receiver has to break up an interception for Joe Haden. When Fitzpatrick jumps the inside route, he takes over defending the receiver and Haden takes over the deep zone for Minkah Fitzpatrick. A great scheme for the Steelers to utilize, they have outside corners who are great in deep zone and a free safety who is deadly attacking those routes through he middle.

Week 16, 3rd quarter, 7:14. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety to the top of the screen.

This time Fitzpatrick takes over a drag route and Steven Nelson drops into deep zone from outside corner. Sam Darnold has no where to throw the ball, and takes a sack.


Conclusion

The Steelers defense evolved throughout the 2019 season, adding wrinkles and increasing the complexity of the defense to counter opposing teams’ strategies. The Steelers have two top-notch outside corners, a perfect fit for their nickle defensive back in Mike Hilton, and Minkah Fitzpatrick coming off an All-Pro season. They also have Terrell Edmunds and Cameron Sutton, who are flexible and athletic enough to allow the Steelers to aggressively disguise their coverage.

Looking forward to 2020, I expect to see a lot more of those cover-1 swaps and more ways to get corners into deep zone to free up Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick to play to their strengths. This Steelers defense has been carried by the pass rush since Keith Butler took over in 2015, but the group of defensive backs on this roster heading into 2020 could very well be the best secondary in the NFL. They have the talent, and they are finding creative and effective ways to use that talent. When you add in the pass rushers up front and Devin Bush heading into his second season, it’s a recipe for greatness.