clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Film Room: The Evolution of the 2019 Steelers secondary, Part 2: Solving the personnel puzzle

Finding the best fits for the talent in the Steelers secondary

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1 of this film room series we looked at the first three games of the 2019 season, focusing on the three different free safeties the Steelers started. Starting in Week 4, the Steelers had the players who would come together to form one of the best secondaries in the NFL.

But with so many changes in a short span of time, Keith Butler, Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley needed to quickly find the best roles for each of their players. They needed to find a way to combine their strengths and weaknesses into a cohesive unit.

The Cornerbacks

The Steelers had a deep group of corners, with Joe Haden and Steven Nelson outside, Mike Hilton in the slot and Cameron Sutton as the dime back. Each of them have different strengths.

Week 4, 2nd quarter 9:12. Steven Nelson is the CB to the top of the screen.

Steven Nelson didn’t give up many receptions or yards in 2019. He did have weaknesses though, and one was sharp cuts. Nelson didn’t get beat deep, but he gave up ground on cuts as his burst to the ball wasn’t a strength. Like on this play, he was most frequently playing with outside leverage, taking away outside and deep routes while being vulnerable to in-cuts that would run receivers into the heart of the defense.

Note 1: Look at the WR in motion before the snap. By Week 4 the Steelers were starting to switch man assignments. Hilton switches to the RB and tackles him right off the play action, while Mark Barron picks up the motion receiver at the bottom of the screen.

Note 2: Minkah Fitzpatrick is moving up on this play, and ends up in front of the receiver and unable to impact the throw. Edmunds is the safety who makes the tackle.

Week 4, 4th quarter, 4:00. Mike Hilton is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Mike Hilton is at his best squared to the play, eyes on the QB and breaking aggressively on the ball. He doesn’t have great speed, but he has great short-range quickness. This shows up here with a pass breakup. Having safeties behind him who could take care of receivers that got past him allowed him to play to those strengths. If you look at the top of the screen you can see Joe Haden also playing under his WR, while to the bottom of the screen Steven Nelson is playing farther off, taking away anything deep.

Week 5, 2nd quarter, 0:36. Joe Haden is the CB to the top of the screen, Mike HIlton is in the slot to the top, while Steven Nelson is to the bottom of the screen.

You see it again on this play— Haden and Hilton are both playing the short routes aggressively, while Steven Nelson is keeping his receiver in front of him. Hilton and Haden’s aggressive play pays off on this play with a sack on Lamar Jackson.

Cameron Sutton is good at mirroring receivers, and is behind only Steven Nelson in deep coverage ability. He’s not a good run defender, and the Steelers almost never ask him to take on those roles which is a big reason he isn’t the nickel back.

One of the best ways to show the difference between Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton in deep coverage is the last two plays the Chargers offense had in Week 6.

Mike Hilton is the second DB from the top.

Hilton doesn’t have much of a backpedal, often he turns and runs like this right off the bat and you can see him struggle to read and adjust to the deep ball.

Cameron Sutton is the CB to the bottom of the screen.

Sutton took over for Joe Haden when he left the game, and in a game where the Chargers were throwing the ball to try and make a comeback he acquitted himself very well. You can see his backpedal, a fluid turn, quick read on the ball and a smooth adjustment for the game sealing interception.

I don’t have film of Cameron Sutton in run support from 2019, the Steelers learned that lesson well before these games.

Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds

Minkah Fitzpatrick’s first game in black and gold established he wasn’t a player the Steelers wanted to blitz, but there was still a lot left to learn. Finding the best way to use their new safety pairing was the biggest part of the puzzle.

Week 4, 4th quarter, 5:11. Terrell Edmunds is the safety to the bottom of the screen, Minkah Fitzpatrick is deep in the middle of the field.

Minkah Fitzpatrick bursts toward the receiver as the QB is throwing the ball, and because of that he beats Edmunds to the receiver, even though Edmunds was only a few yards away when the ball was thrown. This is Minkah’s best trait. He reads the play and reacts to it with incredible quickness. On this play covering 8 yards and making the tackle before Terrell Edmunds can react much at all.

Week 5, 2nd quarter, 6:50. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the safety right next to the hash marks toward the bottom of the screen.

Fitzpatrick reads the play, bursts to the TE and Kam Kelly ends up with an interception. A lot of Minkah Fitzpatrick’s big plays were similar to this one, when he could read the play and attack the ball. Fitzpatrick destroys what looks like a nice gap and what would normally be an easy completion.

Even Minkah Fitzpatrick has weaknesses, and they showed up a good bit in these games.

Week 5, 2nd quarter, 11:26. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the safety in the deep middle.

The Baltimore Ravens passed a lot out of jumbo sets in Week 5, the Steelers countered their heavy sets by pulling Terrell Edmunds off the field and putting all three inside LBs on the field.

Here the Ravens score a TD right where Terrell Edmunds most frequently lined up. But the thing to see here is they scored the TD less than 8 yards away from Minkah Fitzpatrick, and he barely even gets moving toward the play. Minkah Fitzpatrick was deadly reading plays and going toward the line of scrimmage, but he wasn’t as dangerous laterally. The Steelers were a cover-1 heavy defense in weeks 2 and 3, but they would increasingly go away from it after that.

Week 6, 3rd quarter, 2:52. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the deep safety to start the play.

This play shows Fitzpatrick’s ability to read and follow the play fluidly, but it also shows one of the ways teams were avoiding him early in his time with the Steelers. By running a route at him deep, they were able to keep him from attacking the in cutting route. You can see the solution if you look to the top of the screen at Steven Nelson who is deep and nowhere near the in-cut. This is likely a mistake by Fitzpatrick, as Nelson looks like he’s already moving to take over covering the deep route. They had pulled off a similar coverage swap the week before with better result.

Week 5, 4th quarter, 12:26. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the Safety to the top of the screen, right by the hash marks, Steven Nelson is outside him, furthest to the top of the screen.

Here Nelson takes deep responsibility as Fitzpatrick attacks the underneath route. In the play above the Chargers crossed the routes, and it got Minkah Fitzpatrick to follow the wrong receiver.

Setting the secondary up for success

One of the big criticisms of Keith Butler has been that he didn’t put his secondary in position to succeed. While a lot of the problem was the difficulty of finding success with the talent he had, 2019 would show both simple solutions which played to his players strengths along with creativity that had been missing in the Steelers coverage schemes in previous years.

Week 4, 3rd quarter, 10:33. Pay attention to the 3 defenders covering the 3 receivers to the top of the screen.

The Steelers use pattern matching here. The defenders don’t just follow a player, Devin Bush takes the player going inside, while a DB picks up his player heading deep. Using pattern matching allowed the Steelers to keep the defender who was worst at deep coverage from being exploited. If you look at the bottom of the screen you’ll see they are in a much more basic zone. This is a cover-6 defense, with pattern-matching to the open field and a cover-2 style zone to the boundary side of the field.

Week 4, 2nd quarter, 13:24. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the safety to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the safety to the bottom of the screen.

One of the first alterations the Steelers showed was in their cover-4. Fitzpatrick moves forward and towards the middle at the snap as Edmunds backs up and takes the role as the last line of defense. This kept Fitzpatrick on the first down line, and relieved him of having to make sure no one got past him.

Week 6, 4th quarter, 3:47. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the safety to the bottom of the screen.

Here it really paid off. Notice the similarity in the route combo here to plays we covered earlier, with a deep route running right at Fitzpatrick followed by an in-cut that would have been for a first down. Because he can pass the deep route off to Edmunds in this more diamond shaped cover-4, Fitzpatrick shuts off both routes as Rivers is looking his way, and with time ticking away the Chargers dump the ball off.

But this is just the start of the innovation to the Steelers long yardage defense. Go back to the play above this one and look at the shape the defensive backs end up taking. Two defenders in the middle right at the first down line, 2 defenders short and out to the sides, two defenders deep to either side and one defender even deeper in the middle. The defense would tinker with this look for the rest of the season, and it first really shows up in Week 6 as the defense finds itself desperate to stop the Chargers offense with three of their best coverage players out.

Week 5, 1st quarter, 10:21. watch the deep middle of the defense.

This is the first time we see the slot DB (Kam Kelly on this play) bail and start running deep right before the snap. Notice Mark Barron and Mike Hilton both head outside to cover short zones as the safeties don’t back up but look to play forward. This defense fails because Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kam Kelly are both too deep, and no one is defending the first down line on their side.

Week 6, 4th quarter, 10:00.

Here you see the formation take shape quickly out of a cover-3 look, both LBs drop in the middle, two outside short, two outside deep, Fitzpatrick deep middle. Devin Bush and Vince Williams aren’t equipped to cover that much ground though, and it’s an easy pass over the LBs as Fitzpatrick again shows he’s not the same play maker when he is the last line of defense.

Week 6, 4th quarter, 3:19.

The Steelers do it again, this time borrowing from Tomlin’s Tampa-2 background and dropping Devin Bush deep while the safeties step forward to cover the lion’s share of turf. Devin Bush cannot be your deepest defender, and the CBs dropping deep are in cover-3 alignments, not cover-2 and it leaves the middle wide open for a big gain.

The Steelers would continue to experiment with this idea as the season went on. I’ll cover it more in the rest of this film room as it shows up, because more than just a formation, it is scheming players into positions that makes them the most effective, and it shows the coaches awareness of those strengths and weaknesses as well as innovation in how they maximize those talents.

K. T. Smith covered this concept in his film room earlier this week, and he does a great job breaking down the strategy and disguise aspects of it.

The takeaway

The Steelers defense was taking off at this point of the season and would continue as they utilized the talents in the secondary better. Pairing Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson on the same side of the field was a fantastic fit, with Nelson not letting anything get past him, and freeing up Fitzpatrick to attack the middle of the field. Meanwhile Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds would play on the other side. Haden aggressively attacked short routes with Edmunds limiting the damage when Haden was burned.

Minkah Fitzpatrick was a phenomenal addition, and a top tier talent. But the reason his addition showed up so incredibly in team stats is because of how well his skill set fit with the rest of the secondary, and the job the coaching staff did at maximizing the combination of those different skill sets. The next group of games would see that pay off, as Minkah Fitzpatrick would record 5 passes defended, 4 interceptions and 2 defensive TDs in the next three games.