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The ongoing communication issues on the 2019 Steelers defense

What was happening, and who was to blame?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When Keith Butler stated that Vince Williams would be starting next to Devin Bush in the 2020 NFL season because of his communication skills, a few plays immediately popped into my head. Because, while the Steelers defense was great after Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the team, there were still plays that left you scratching your head wondering what was going on.

Miscommunication is something Steelers fans have had more than enough of. Star players running completely uncovered and baffling match-ups in man coverage had plagued the Steelers defense and tortured Steeler fans for years. I’m not saying things are that bad, but I have to agree with Keith Butler’s statement:

As we went back and looked at our (2019) video and graded ourselves, if anything went wrong with our defense it was more on our communication, and really on our secondary communication. There’s primary communication, which starts at the first part of the play, and as the play starts to play out a little bit there’s secondary communication when sometimes you have to make adjustments.

Let’s look at some examples of miscommunication.

Week 6, 2nd quarter, 2:58. Watch the top of the screen.

That is a communication failure. Joe Haden and Mike Hilton both go after the screen pass and let the deeper route run free. This mistake makes sense to me, though. Steven Nelson was out for the game and Joe Haden took his spot, Mike Hilton is used to covering short routes while Steven Nelson takes the deeper route and Joe Haden is used to being the corner who jumps short routes on his side. When necessity put Haden on the other side with Hilton, you can understand a momentary lapse into their normal roles.

But there are worse ones.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 9:59. Jarvis Landry is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Two Browns run free in the end zone while the Steelers double team the fullback. You can see Terrell Edmunds (lined up just off the line to the bottom of the screen) pointing his arm at Landry right before the ball is snapped. He appears to be talking to Joe Haden, who will join him in covering the flat a second later. This kind of confusion is something we would expect to see with a second year safety calling the defensive adjustments.

The fact that Terrell Edmunds was leading communication was a problem, he was a second year player taking a big step up in his role, but the other options included Minkah Fitzpatrick, who joined the team in season and was himself a second year player, Devin Bush, a rookie, Mark Barron, who was new to the team, and Vince Williams, who would only play 36.5% of defensive plays. Sean Davis was out for the season, someone had to step up.

Terrell Edmunds was the best candidate on that list, but he would struggle some as the Steeler secondary became more and more complex, and required increasing amounts of communication.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 13:19. Terrell Edmunds is to the top of the screen, moving up to the 30 yard line pre-snap. Minkah Fitzpatrick is the other safety, toward the bottom of the screen, on the 35 yard line at the snap.

Right before this clip starts, Mark Barron (25 yard line, standing up to the top of the screen at the snap) acts like he is going to cover the receiver tight to the line of scrimmage. Terrell Edmunds moves into his safety spot right behind Barron, and Barron then moves to blitz. This is almost certainly a robber look out of cover-1, with Edmunds coming up to take away the slant before running across the field to follow Mayfield and take away anything leaking into the middle. But Minkah Fitzpatrick doesn’t look like he knows he has underneath support. Fitzpatrick hesitates, trying to determine if he should jump the route under him or take the deep route, and that moment of hesitation means he’s covering neither.

The week 11 Browns game was a mess, but a big part of it involved plays like this, where the moving parts of the Steelers defense caused the Steelers more problems than it caused the the Browns.

The reality of the situation is the coverage is still pretty simple, but before the snap there is a lot of disguise work, and that’s great when it makes the quarterback hesitate, buying the defense valuable time. When it ends with the defense hesitating or confused, it isn’t good at all.

A few of the most egregious miscommunications involved Terrell Edmunds and Mark Barron.

Week 13, 4th quarter, 9:35. Mark Barron is the middle linebacker, Terrell Edmunds is just above him on the screen, and will cover the tight end.

Nick Chubb is wide open coming out of the backfield and picks up 21 yards. This play would set up a field goal to pull the Browns within 7. Fortunately it was the last points scored in the game.

But look at what happened before the snap.

You can see Barron starts the play covering Chubb, following his motion to the other side of Baker Mayfield. When Odell Beckham Jr. motions to the top of the screen Barron switches off Chubb, but Edmunds moves down and sends him back.

The switches that take place at that point are: (top to bottom) Haden switches from the tight end to Beckham Jr., Terrell Edmunds takes over the tight end from his deep safety spot, and Bush changes from covering Beckham Jr. to a free defender, meaning he will be blitzing here, and Minkah Fitzpatrick moves to single high safety.

Before Odell Beckham Jr. goes in motion the Steelers look to be set up to run pattern matching to Bush’s side of the field, they did that the vast majority of the time you see trips with a LB on the inside receiver. Pattern matching would let Bush take the inside route, instead of trying to cover Beckham Jr. Terrell Edmunds would be the deep safety on that side, while to the top of the screen they are either going to run man or a cover-2 style zone.

When the Browns balance the offensive formation the Steelers switch assignments to a cover-1 with Edmunds covering the TE, Devin Bush blitzing and Minkah Fitzpatrick the lone deep safety.

The only problem is, when Edmunds sends Barron back to his previous spot Barron doesn’t cover Nick Chubb.

Two weeks later a lapse in communication would cost them more than 21 yards.

Week 15, 4th quarter, 6:49. Mark Barron is the linebacker in the middle of the defense, on the 10 yard line. Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety to the top of the screen, Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen, just outside Barron, also on the ten yard line.

I’m sure most Steeler fans remember this play, it gave the Bills a 17-10 lead that would hold up as the final score.

Again, let’s take a look right before the snap, where the television angle gives us a great view of Edmunds and Haden both talking to Mark Barron.

Now go ahead back to the all-22 film of the play and watch Joe Haden after the TD. He’s staring directly at Mark Barron.

Check out that body language.

The television angle gives a good shot of Terrell Edmunds’ reaction as well.

It is important to remember that both Steeler drives after this play ended up inside the Bills 30 yard line, well inside Chris Boswell’s range. If the Steelers hold the Bills to a field goal here, they have a great shot at tying the game without asking their rookie camp invite quarterback to play hero ball.

After week 13 Mark Barron would play fewer snaps, and both Devin Bush and Vince Williams would play more, although not a drastically different percentage. After the season the Steelers released Mark Barron and he is still a free agent, while they are committing to playing Vince Williams more this season. When Sean Davis was lost for the 2019 season Terrell Edmunds became the next man up, calling the secondary assignments, and while he wasn’t terrible, there were issues. I would not be surprised to see Minkah Fitzpatrick take more responsibility in that role this season, and with Vince Williams playing line backer, I don’t expect there to be as many miscues.

Vince Williams may not be the athlete Mark Barron was, but you can expect him to know where he should be on each play, and the Steelers trust him to improve the communication across the defense.