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Film Room: If the Steelers defense avoids mistakes, they can dominate the Ravens

The Steelers lost to the Ravens, in part, because of defensive mistakes

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a disappointing 2019 season, and the Steelers offense carried a lot of the blame. Injuries decimated the teams ability to move the ball and score points, especially the loss of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers defense carried the team to 8 wins, but they weren’t perfect. There were clear issues on defense in both the week 5 and week 17 losses to the AFC North Champion Baltimore Ravens. If the Steelers are going to surpass the Ravens, they are going to need to beat them head to head, and Ben Roethlisberger returning isn’t a guarantee that they can win those games.

In today’s film room we are going to look at both 2019 games against the Ravens and show the mistakes on defense that need to be fixed if the Steelers are going to turn the tables on the Ravens and win the AFC North.

Week 5: You need to communicate and play smart

The Ravens use a lot of motion in their offense, throwing a lot of different looks and movement into simple plays to create small amounts of confusion and hesitation that can make a big difference on the field.

To beat that Ravens offense, you have to play smart, and you have to communicate.

1st quarter, 0:52. Mark Barron is the linebacker to the top of the screen, on the 40 yard line.

This is a modified man defense, with the corners taking the deep routes and the slot defenders, Mike Hilton and Mark Barron taking the underneath routes. Mark Barron didn’t get the memo though, and Marquise Brown is wide open for an easy 8 yard gain.

2nd quarter, 14:25. Watch Mark Barron (#26) in the middle of the play.

Mark Barron is watching the motion and the adjustments to it, and then makes a momentary mistake, starting to follow the running back before turning to cover the tight end. The motion by the Ravens distracted Barron momentarily, and that’s all they needed.

2nd quarter, 12:21. Watch the linebackers.

The Ravens get both linebackers looking at the flat, and with Joe Haden playing the flat, that puts 3 defenders on one receiver with two coming across the middle wide open. This was a 3rd & 9 conversion for the Ravens. The worst culprit here is, again, Mark Barron.

But don’t think all the mistakes were Mark Barron’s fault.

2nd quarter, 11:26. Watch the second receiver from the top of the screen

It’s an easy 11 yard touchdown here, the Ravens attack the seams in a cover-3 defense and both slot receivers are wide open. The problem here is the two defenders the Ravens are attacking are T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. The Steelers have 3 defensive lineman on the field, with 5 linebackers and just 3 defensive backs. The Ravens are in empty with 3 receivers, 1 tight end and 1 running back. The Steelers are in their jumbo package against 11 personnel.

To defend the touchdown to Marquise Brown here would require T.J. Watt to realize that the tight end is going to demand Devin Bush’s attention and for T.J. to adjust and carry Brown into the endzone. T.J. Watt is an elite pass rusher, and is pretty good in coverage for an edge rusher, but he isn’t going to make that read. The defensive personnel package on this play was wrong, and easily exploited by the Ravens.

2nd quarter, 7:31. Vince Williams is in for Mark Barron, He’s on the line to the top of the screen, and will start the play by dropping back along the top hash marks.

When Vince Williams was in, the defense committed fewer mistakes. This play shows why the Steelers trust Vince in coverage. He’s in zone here, he carries the tight end to the deep defenders, then reads the pass to the flat and gets there to help stop the play from gaining any yards.

Mark Barron would leave this game due to injury in the second quarter and miss the next week in LA. When Barron left the game, the Ravens had 5 drives and had scored 17 points (3.4 points per drive). The rest of the game the Ravens had 7 drives and scored 9 points. (1.3 points per drive) Before Barron was hurt, the Ravens gained an average of 4.58 yards per play, compared to 3.09 after. A few miscommunications and mistakes can seem like a small thing, but those yards add up, and the drives they extend turn into points.

3rd quarter, 3:05. Watch the receiver to the top of the screen.

When errors on switches and zone plays show up, it is tempting to say the answer is to just run man defense. The Ravens are built to beat man defense, they have a lot of change of direction players and playing man with a running quarterback is always risky. Here Joe Haden is lined up outside the tight end he is covering, and a simple drag route picks up good yards.

3rd quarter 1:01. Devin Bush is the linebacker on the hash marks to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers are running a little disguise on this play, showing a cover-3 look but bringing Minkah Fitzpatrick up like he’s a middle linebacker in a cover-2 defense. Cameron Sutton and Terrell Edmunds drop into deep half positions, making it hard for Lamar Jackson to key on Minkah Fitzpatrick as his read for the defensive alignment.

But none of that matters, because Devin Bush is the hook defender, and he’s too far inside. The outside receiver runs a slant into Bush’s zone, and no one is there.

3rd quarter, 0:24. Devin Bush is the linebacker that starts the clip on the hash marks to the bottom of the screen, Mike Hilton is outside him.

The Ravens know that their run game is hard to stop, and they know teams have to be aggressive in their reads to stop Lamar Jackson from taking off for a big play. Their offense is designed to create a threat heading one direction, and exploit the aggressiveness of the defense by going the other way. On this play the Ravens run a tight end in motion and use play action to get Devin Bush and Mike Hilton biting on a run to the top of the screen, only to throw to the tight end going across the formation the other way. Mike Hilton doesn’t bite too hard here, but it doesn’t take much and the Ravens get 24 yards.

The Steelers would do better the rest of the game, holding the Ravens to 47 yards on their last 18 plays, an average of 2.6 yards per play and holding the Ravens to two 40+ yard field goal attempts on their last 4 drives of the game.

With Lamar Jackson playing, the Steelers only really struggled with the Ravens offense when they were making mistakes and failing to play smart. With Mark Barron not on the team, Devin Bush no longer a rookie and a more effective offense, I doubt the Ravens could win a game like this against the 2020 Steelers.

The Week 5 overtime loss was a credit to the scrappy Steelers of 2019, even if they couldn’t pull out the win. But the week 17 loss was a demoralizing 28-10 beat down, right? Yes. Yes it was. It was awful.

But it also wasn’t as bad as it looks from the Steelers defensive side, with one enormous, repeated exception.

1st quarter, 10:45

That’s Gus Edwards on an RPO looking run play. There are 3 big keys to this play.

  1. T.J. Watt rushing to the quarterback and not playing the run, with a pulling blocker assigned to make sure he doesn’t get involved in the run. This time the pulling guard doesn’t even touch Watt as he shoves Robert Griffin III.
  2. A double team on Javon Hargrave moves the Steelers tackle out of the run play, this time 4 yards backwards where he helps make the tackle.
  3. A blocker gets to Devin Bush. The Ravens respected Devin Bush, and they have their tight end dedicated to blocking him.

2nd quarter, 11:29.

This time the Ravens don’t even bother to send someone to seal T.J. Watt out of he play. He runs and gets his free contact with Robert Griffin III, but the Ravens get 9 yards on 3rd & 1.

The Ravens would run Gus Edwards off right guard 16 times in Week 17, and gain 122 yards (7.63 yards per carry) on those runs. The rest of their offense gained 182 yards on 52 plays (3.5 yards per play).

So while it is true the Ravens ran all over the Steelers in Week 17, it was largely one play that worked because the Ravens could reliably move Javon Hargrave off his mark and exploit the Steelers edge defenders’ dedication to getting contact with the quarterback.

3rd quarter 13:21.

Again, the Ravens let T.J. Watt run free, but this time Watt foregoes his hit on the quarterback to strip the football from Gus Edwards and the Steelers get the ball back. This was one of only a few times the Steelers held this run to a bad result.

3rd quarter, 2:42

This time the Ravens run the play out of a bigger set, but it still works largely the same way. Cameron Heyward is the edge in this formation, and he, like Watt, is sent to make contact with the quarterback. You can see the tight end looking for, and finding Devin Bush. A one-on-one block on Javon Hargrave keeps him out of the run lane, and they even have a fullback ready to block Joe Haden. Fortunately for the Steelers, Vince Williams shrinks the run lane and Daniel McCullers works across Javon Hargrave to wreck the play.

4th quarter, 7:33.

The game was already out of reach at this point, but the Steelers try a different approach to stopping Gus Edwards. T.J. Watt cuts inside, and Mark Barron replaces him as the runner to the quarterback. You can see the tight end isn’t fooled, and they double T.J. Watt while sending wide receiver Myles Boykin to disrupt Devin Bush.

A combination of the Steelers strategy of always getting contact on the quarterback to disrupt the Lamar Jackson parts of the Ravens’ dominant ground attack, and the Ravens ability to move Javon Hargrave let them gain reliable yards on this off-guard run all game. If this run play wasn’t ridiculously successful all game long, the Ravens wouldn’t have run all over the Steelers.

The conclusion

The 2019 Steelers defense had Lamar Jackson largely solved. There were a few big problems, most notably Mark Barron and Devin Bush making mental mistakes in Week 5, and Javon Hargrave being exploited by power run schemes in Week 17.

Devin Bush is not a rookie, and improved steadily in the mental side of the game as the season went on. Mark Barron and Javon Hargrave are gone. Stephon Tuitt isn’t going to get moved off his mark as easily as Javon Hargrave, and Vince Williams is a much better player to play against the Ravens than Mark Barron.

And that isn’t even getting to the offensive side of the ball, which has a lot more room to improve, and great reasons to believe they will improve in 2020.

If the defense can perform like they did in the second half of the Week 5 Ravens match-up, the Steelers won’t be in a position to be competitive with their division rivals, they will be in a position to dominate them and take back the AFC North title.