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The Steelers’ defensive issues vs. tight ends could be a blueprint for the offense

Looking at how teams used tight ends against the Steelers in 2019.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Steelers were one of the better ranked teams in Football Outsiders DVOA against both tight ends and running backs in 2019, a big improvement from 2018. The Steelers still had struggles, they just did better than other teams who faced the same tight ends. One theme that shows up in the most successful offenses in the NFL and in the most efficient offenses is tight ends that line up in the slot. Targets to slot players are consistently more efficient than targets to outside receivers, and are also more efficient than targets to tight ends lined up tight to the formation.

The Steelers signed Eric Ebron this off-season, pairing him with Vance McDonald to give them a tight end duo they could attack defenses with. Eric Ebron is one of the more dangerous tight ends when lined up in the slot. For this film room we are going to look at the Steelers defense facing some of the better tight ends in the NFL when lined up in the slot. We’ll look at what gave the Steelers problems, discuss what lessons there are to learn from that film, and how the Steelers can successfully utilize these strategies.


Individual mismatches

The first thing that needs to be covered with receiving tight ends is their ability to create mismatches in man defense. A big, strong player that can run routes like a wide receiver is tough to defend. If they are a competent blocker in the run game, it gets even harder.

In most situations, a defense will match tight ends and running backs with linebackers when sending personnel onto the field. Linebackers aren’t just big cornerbacks though. They aren’t built the same, they don’t train the same, and they carry different responsibilities. Even the better coverage linebackers who can run with tight ends aren’t going to master all of the man coverage technique cornerbacks have to learn to have success in the NFL.

Week 4, 1st quarter, 13:33. Tyler Eifert is the slot receiver to the top of the screen, matched up against Mark Barron.

Mark Barron does a good job staying with Eifert here. He remains in contact with Eifert the entire route. Barron is trailing Eifert so he cannot see the ball, but he has to read Eifert’s eyes and hands. Eifert wins with good technique and timing with his quarterback Andy Dalton.

Eifert does a great job turning off of contact with Barron and uses late hands to make it tough for Barron to get a hand in and completes the catch. This is solid technique from Mark Barron losing to better technique from Tyler Eifert.

Week 9, 4th quarter, 14:13. Jack Doyle is the receiver to the far left of the screen, Devin Bush is in coverage.

Jack Doyle doesn’t have elite receiver skills, but he’s more than a match for Devin Bush on this play. Bush has inside leverage and help if Doyle runs outside. Doyle comes inside to meet Bush, gives a good push and turns away to make the catch. Devin Bush defends this play very well for a linebacker, he’s not a defensive back.

The defense has to balance the risk of putting a linebacker in coverage versus the risk of having a tight end blocking a defensive back on a run play. Tight ends that are dynamic receivers but not great blockers would appear to make that an easy choice, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a problem even for a versatile and valuable defensive back like Cameron Sutton.

Week 10, 2nd quarter, 0:51. Gerald Everett is the 2nd receiver from the bottom of the screen, Cameron Sutton is covering him.

Cameron Sutton times his challenge to this pass well, but Everett is still big and strong, and he pulls the ball in despite the contact, and gains extra yards with Sutton out of the play.

Week 10, 2nd quarter, 0:29. Gerald Everett (#81) is the receiver to the right of the screen, Cameron Sutton is in coverage.

Again Sutton times up his attack on the pass and this time the pass is incomplete. But look at where Sutton cuts in front of Everett and where he lands. He made the play, but he also got flung several yards for his effort.

Week 10, 3rd quarter, 10:36. Gerald Everett is the second receiver from the bottom of the screen. Cameron Sutton is again in coverage.

Everett is able to get a good release off the line, and Cameron Sutton tries to recover and challenge the pass, but the best he can do is hang on the tight end’s back, drawing a pass interference penalty and Everett still makes the catch.

When the defense has athletic linebackers, a tight end with receiver skills will still have an advantage over the linebacker’s cover skills most of the time as well as a significant size advantage over cornerbacks. This is why teams value athletic, big defensive backs that can cover and be physical.

Week 9, 4th quarter, 14:13. Jack Doyle is in the slot to the bottom of the screen. Terrell Edmunds is in coverage.

This is one of the better reps against a tight end you can find for the Steelers in 2019. Doyle gives Edmunds a shove, but Edmunds recovers, gets on Doyle’s hip, sees Doyle look for the ball and is able to find and swat the ball away. This failed 2-pt. conversion set the Steelers up to win on a Chris Boswell field goal, instead of just tying the game.


Overwhelming the defense

One of the values of putting tight ends in the slot is it pulls linebackers out to the tight end. This makes it hard when that linebacker carries a large amount of responsibility in run defense.

Week 2, 4th quarter, 4:53. Will Dissly (#88) is to the right of the screen, Devin Bush is in coverage.

You can see Devin Bush’s attention is split between the tight end and reading for a run play. He has really strong inside leverage, and even his elite athleticism and quick reading of the play can’t make up for the advantage the tight end has on this quick out route.

Week 8, 3rd quarter, 3:15. Jack Doyle is third from the bottom, Devin Bush is in coverage.

On this play Bush is able to match Doyle’s movements, break on the pass and knock the ball away. But look at the start of the play, Bush is lined up square with Doyle, it’s an empty set, Bush doesn’t have to worry about a run here, and he’s able to cover Doyle.

There are other ways to overwhelm defenses by moving tight ends outside.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 12:02. Eric Ebron is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen, Jack Doyle is tight to the line on the same side, Devin Bush is covering Doyle.

Jack Doyle wins a one on one with Devin Bush and walks into the end zone. Doyle scores this touchdown, but Eric Ebron plays a huge part in it. Cam Sutton is matched up on Ebron, and that’s a physical mismatch you can’t allow in the red zone, so Sutton plays outside Ebron and Minkah Fitzpatrick comes over to take away anything to the inside. If Fitzpatrick is in the middle of the field here, he would be in position to make a play on the ball. The two tight end set creates mismatches that lead to a TD on this play. If you replace Ebron with a slot receiver, this play likely doesn’t work.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 2:36. Jack Doyle is the second receiver from the bottom of the screen.

This is what happens when you don’t clear Minkah Fitzpatrick out of the middle of the field. The colts again try to overwhelm the defense with 2 receivers attacking Joe Haden, but Haden has help, and this one goes for a touchdown the other way. If you look to the top of the screen, the Steelers are comfortable in a 2-on-2 on that side of the ball, letting Fitzpatrick attack the play side. The Steelers inability to cover Eric Ebron 1-on-1 was the difference between a Colts receiving touchdown and a defensive touchdown for Pittsburgh.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 3:13. Eric Ebron (#85) is to the left of the screen.

One last thing that stood out on film, Bud Dupree is wide on this play, set to take a wide angle in his pass rush. Eric Ebron gives him a good chip right into the tackle to start the play, then outruns Mark Barron for a 7-yard gain. That’s a great play. The work between Ebron and his tackle is textbook for delivering a rusher to the blocker.


Motion and misdirection

Motion is most effective when it changes the defensive assignments right before the snap. That almost always means motion is more troublesome for inside defenders. For the offense, that means slot receivers, tight ends and backs are the ones that benefit the most from motion creating delay or confusion in the defense.

Week 2, 3rd quarter, 9:54. Will Dissly is the tight end to the bottom of the screen.

Before the motion, Mark Barron is lined up on the tight end, Devin Bush on the running back and Steven Nelson on Tyler Lockett. The motion moves Nelson to Dissly, Barron to the running back and Bush follows Lockett across the formation. When it all switches back, Mark Barron is still thinking running back and Will Dissly is wide open for the touchdown. Mark Barron was released by the Steelers because of these mistakes, but he wasn’t the only one making them. Devin Bush was making them as well, especially early in the season. Other linebackers make the same mistakes.

Week 3, 2nd quarter, 13:06. Terrell Edmunds is covering Kyle Juszczyk in the slot to the bottom of the screen.

The 49ers show a pass to the running back, and it’s a real threat with a fullback in the slot on a safety. Juszczyk sells the block, and when Terrell Edmunds makes his move to get around him, Juszczyk takes off for a wide open pass and a big gain. Derek Watt isn’t Kyle Juszczyk, but this is exactly the kind of play the Steelers could run with Watt, using his value as a blocker to trick the defense.

Week 3, 3rd quarter, 10:01.

This is a great play. The 49ers send George Kittle in motion and fake a pass out to the running back. That fake has real threat behind it, especially with Kittle on that side. Four defenders bite on the fake, leaving a nice big path for the shovel pass to Kyle Juszczyk to get into the endzone. It was a great design, and great execution, with one glaring problem.

Stephon Tuitt is the defensive tackle to the right, and even though his first step is to the left, he single-handedly blows up this play. If #75 was able to help #69 keep Tuitt out of the play, it’s an easy score. Still an awesome play design.


Conclusion

I hope this film room helps point out ways the Steelers can utilize their new additions on offense, Eric Ebron, Derek Watt, and Matt Canada to create a more effective offense.

I also want to point out some of the situations that place even more importance on these tactics.

Week 1 the Steelers will face Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley, a vary athletic RB and TE combo, and with Mark Barron gone the Steelers will need to find a way to slow those players down in the passing game or they could cause trouble. In that same game the Steelers will be facing a defense that is rebuilt at linebacker with rookies and free agents looking to start. With no game action before Week 1, the Steelers will have the opportunity to attack that defense the same way teams attacked them early in 2019.

But it isn’t just Week 1. The AFC North is full of linebacker turnover, with all three of the Steelers division rivals leaning on young players and cheaper free agents to start. Both the Browns and Bengals brought in run stoppers to counter the Ravens run game, and the Browns lost a tight end matching safety in rookie Grant Delpit for the season.

In addition the Ravens and Browns also have effective slot tight ends with Baltimore’s Mark Andrews and Cleveland free agent addition Austin Hooper. The Steelers will need plans to cover these athletic slot tight ends, and stand to benefit a lot from using their own.