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The Steelers’ defensive red zone excellence will be paramount in 2020

The Steelers’ defense was tremendous in 2019, and their success in the red-zone was a major reason why.

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Often, when fans and pundits discuss football schemes, they focus on broad concepts like “systems.” They talk about whether a team runs a 4-3 or 3-4 defense or whether they use the Air Raid or West Coast offense. These are interesting topics and worthy of discussion.

The real work of a football staff, however, is not in deciding what system to use but in knowing how to employ their system situationally. Any loyal BTSC reader knows, for example, that although the Steelers continue to base out of a 3-4 defense, they are in a 2-4-5 configuration far more often. Why is that? Because the increased use of 11 personnel by offenses makes the 3-4 impractical as an every-down defense. By putting a third receiver on the field, 11 personnel creates mismatches in the passing game against the 3-4. So, like many teams, the Steelers use the 2-4-5 with its extra coverage player because it’s a sound adjustment to the situational use of 11 personnel by modern offenses.

Game-planning the red zone is one of the most important situational strategies a staff must devise. The difference between a touchdown and a field goal (or, potentially, no points at all) from that area of the field often determines the outcome of a football game. Seattle, for example, went 11-5 in 2019 and ranked in the top five in red zone touchdown percentage. Ten of their eleven wins were decided by eight points or less. There is no doubt their red zone scoring capability was the difference in several of those wins.

The image below shows Pro Football Focus’s four best teams in the NFL in 2019 at defending the red zone. The Steelers finished second in the PFF rankings. This is more evidence of how the defense carried the team to the brink of a playoff berth despite an offense crippled by the loss of Ben Roethlisberger. The reasons for their red zone success are the focus of this article.

The red zone, which is generally defined as the area from the +20 yard line to the goal line, is treated as a separate situation for good reason. The field shrinks in the red zone for both the offense and the defense. Vertical concepts become less practical due to the lack of space. The width of the field remains the same, however, inviting horizontal schemes by the offense. Some coaches prefer a less nuanced approach, opting to load up on big guys and try to smash their way across the goal line. It is a game-plan unto itself. The teams who master it are often the most successful.

The Steelers were effective on defense in the red zone last season for a variety of reasons. They did a nice job mixing and disguising their intentions. They took away the middle of the field in the passing game, forcing teams into lower percentage throws outside the numbers. And they tracked the football and tackled well, an essential element in an area of the field where every yard is crucial.

In their 27-3 victory in week four, the Steelers held Cincinnati to just three points on three red zone trips, including a turnover on a strip-sack and a fourth down stop. On Cincinnati’s first red zone possession, the Bengals got tight end Tyler Eifert matched up on linebacker Mark Barron in the slot. Barron covered Eifert well but quarterback Andy Dalton made a nice touch throw to the back of the end zone that Eifert could have caught. He dropped the throw and the Bengals settled for a field goal.

The next time Cincinnati visited the red zone, they went back to this matchup. On third down, they got Eifert (bottom of the screen) in position against Barron. This time, however, rather than play Eifert solo, the Steelers helped on him with safety Terrell Edmunds. Barron did a good job getting underneath Eifert while Edmunds bracketed him over the top. The double-team forced a near-impossible throw from Dalton for an incompletion.

Besides the coverage adjustment, these two GIFs demonstrate how aggressively the Steelers defended the middle of the field. In the first GIF, Edmunds and fellow safety Minkah Fitzpatrick both looked to attack crossing routes. Edmunds jammed receiver Tyler Boyd (83) as he cut inside while Fitzpatrick sat at the goal line looking for a seam or cross from the other side. In the second GIF, Fitzpatrick cut off Boyd’s path as he worked horizontally.

Here’s another red zone clip from the same game. Dalton threw the fade here to the top of the screen presumably because he liked the matchup of 6’5 receiver Auden Tate against 5’10 Joe Haden. Haden did a great job closing to Tate’s near hip and riding him into the boundary to make this a difficult connection.

But, in the middle of the field, the Steelers again attacked the crossing routes, this time with Barron and Fitzpatrick. By taking away the crossers, they forced Dalton into difficult throws the Bengals could not convert.

(Side note: notice how, in both this clip and the previous one, Fitzpatrick quickly diagnosed the in-breaking route and, rather than simply tracking it, broke in front of the receiver to cut him off. He “jumped” the routes and played for the interception because he knew there was no chance of a double move once the receivers broke flat. Fitzpatrick’s situational awareness and his anticipation and reaction skills are some of the best I’ve ever seen from a safety).

The following week, against Baltimore, the Steelers turned in another strong defensive red zone performance. Baltimore finished fourth in the league with a 65% red zone touchdown percentage but the Steelers held them to two scores on five red zone trips.

Here, in the first quarter, Baltimore had 1st and 10 at the Pittsburgh 12 yard-line. Understanding the effectiveness of Baltimore’s zone-read scheme, which gave quarterback Lamar Jackson the opportunity to hand off or run based on his read of an unblocked defender, the Steelers executed a gap exchange stunt with outside linebacker TJ Watt and slot corner Mike Hilton. Hilton came from the open alley, where he had no coverage assignment, and blitzed inside Watt to the C-gap while Watt feathered outside into a contain position.

Jackson read Watt and, realizing he could not keep the ball, gave it on the inside run to tailback Mark Ingram. Hilton's stunt drew the block of the fullback (86), leaving Watt unblocked to fall back inside and make the tackle for a short gain. By disguising gap responsibilities, the Steelers accomplished two things: they muddied Jackson’s read so he didn’t feel comfortable pulling the ball and attacking the edge, where he is most dangerous; and they freed up their best defender to make a play on the ball-carrier.

On the next play (2nd and 8), the Steelers ran a similar gap exchange by swapping Watt and linebacker Devin Bush. Watt did a tremendous job fighting the down block of the tight end and creating penetration. He closed down the B/C gaps while also getting a piece of the pulling guard, disrupting his path as he climbed to block Bush. Bush then used his athleticism to make the guard miss as he ducked inside to tackle Ingram for a one-yard gain.

On third down, Baltimore threw incomplete and had to settle for a field goal.

It wasn’t coincidence or good guessing that prompted the Steelers to call those gap exchange stunts. In their previous four contests, Baltimore had run the ball on 24 of 34 first and second downs in the red zone. With a situational run rate of 70.5%, defensive coordinator Keith Butler took a calculated gamble the Ravens would keep the ball on the ground and stunted accordingly. The resulting success was a product of good football by the men on the field but solid scouting and play-calling by the coaching staff, too.

Later that season, at Arizona, the Steelers turned in another strong performance, permitting the Cardinals just one touchdown in three red zone trips. Two plays from that game stood out for the Steelers’ ability to get to the ball-carrier and tackle well.

Arizona trailed 10-0 in the 2nd quarter when they found themselves with a 1st and goal at the Steelers’ three yard line. They aligned in a bunch formation to the left and ran a jet sweep concept into the bunch.

The photo below indicates the jet sweep action. All of the Pittsburgh defenders ran hard to the ball on this play, but the two players circled in the photo, corner Steven Nelson and linebacker Vince Williams, were particularly excellent tracking the football.

Watch the angle Nelson took to clear the clutter and maintain outside force position, preventing the ball-carrier (Christian Kirk) from turning the corner. And watch how Williams immediately recognized a seam to the football and charged through it to track down Kirk, eliminating a possible cut-back in the process:

Here’s a better angle of Williams stampeding to the football:

That’s just great defense. It’s a good example of what Williams brings to the Steelers — effort, passion, leadership — and why the coaching staff considers him so valuable.

On second and goal, the Cardinals attempted to get their athletic young quarterback, Kyler Murray, into space on the zone-read concept referenced earlier. Arizona’s line blocked to their right while Murray read an unblocked Mark Barron to his left. Barron, indicated in the rectangle below, chased the back, prompting Murray to pull the football and go. But Minkah Fitzpatrick (circled in the photo) was having none of that:

I can’t be sure if Fitzpatrick was spying Murray here or if he simply recognized the pull on the zone-read incredibly fast (I suspect the former but would not be shocked by the latter). Either way, he came from the middle of the field to fill the alley in an instant, taking a perfect angle to the ball and tracking Murray’s inside hip. Even when Murray stutter-stepped in an attempt to break Fitzpatrick down, Minkah stayed on balance and in position to make the tackle.

Great read-recognition, tracking of the ball-carrier and sound tackling forced Arizona to settle for a field goal. It was an important stand in a tight game the Steelers eventually won, 23-17.

Whether the Steelers can repeat the red zone success their defense enjoyed in 2019 this coming season remains to be seen. With nearly all of their key players back and another year in the system for new additions like Bush, Fitzpatrick and Nelson, it is reasonable to expect continued success.

The bigger question is, can the offense reclaim the form that made it one of the best red zone teams in the league in 2018? That is the subject of next week’s article.