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The Steelers focus on containing DK Metcalf was the real story of Week 6

How defending the Seahawks big WR shaped the entire game.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers beat the Seahawks 23-20 in Week 6, and one of the big stories of the game was the three Seahawks drives to start the second half leading to 17 points on the back of a dominant rushing attack. Rightfully, many have pointed out Mike Tomlin talking about keeping the Seahawks receivers from beating them deep at half time, while Pete Carrol talked about his team needing to establish the run.

Dave Schofield and I covered the Seahawks third quarter from the rushing side in our Vertex article earlier this week...

But I wanted to dig deeper into the situation, and show how containing the Seattle receivers, specifically DK Metcalf, made such a big impact on the Steelers defensive strategy.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 11:04

Tre Norwood is the DB that runs with the motion.

DK Metcalf is a big, fast man. The Seahawks get him on a drag route with a pick route coming the other way to get him in open space with a head of steam. It works, Terrell Edmunds is run off the route by the RB and Robert Spillane, but they also have Tre Norwood. Norwood passes off his man to Joe Haden and turns to find Metcalf, lining him up before he has time to make a move.

Good play for the rookie, but it also shows how the Steelers wanted to defend Metcalf. They don’t ask James Pierre to run with Metcalf, they want switches and zone coverage so no one player has to try and defend everything Metcalf can throw at them.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 13:07

DK Metcalf is the receiver to the top of the screen.

This is DK Metcalf vs. Joe Haden in man defense. Haden is one of the better tackling corners in the NFL, but Metcalf dispatches him with one hand. Metcalf is taller, stronger, faster. His nearly 35 inch long arms are in the 98th percentile for wide receivers, and he’s incredibly strong. The Seahawks love these man matchups, because of how often Metcalf can just win with his physical advantages.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 2nd quarter, 15:00

DK Metcalf is the 3rd WR from the top of the screen, Devin Bush is lined up across from him.

When the Seahawks put DK Metcalf in the slot, the Steelers put a linebacker on him. Devin Bush, like Haden, is 5 inches shorter than Metcalf, but at least he’s only giving up 1 lb. to the receiver unlike the 40 lb. advantage Haden is giving up. Metcalf still wins this matchup with another one-hand swat to clear Bush from his path. Bush recovers and Minkah Fitzpatrick is charging to bring him down, but you can see the difficult matchup Metcalf creates.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 2nd quarter, 9:55

DK Metcalf is the receiver to the top of the screen.

He’s also fast, and can make tougher catches. The Seahawks get Haden on Metcalf in man and with a single-high safety look for Minkah Fitzpatrick, they run this standard two-level attack on the safety. Minkah shows his usual incredible reaction time but Metcalf makes the catch on a smartly thrown low ball. The Steelers love having Fitzpatrick jump the shorter route.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 2nd quarter, 9:30

Cameron Heyward is 2nd from the bottom on the line.

Look at the routes run here. They are almost identical to the above play. They show run, drawing the Steelers into that single-high look, but this time they want Tyler Lockett deep. They have a shot at him too, but before Geno Smith can unload the ball he has Cameron Heyward on him.

The Seahawks are attacking the deep safety, but this is more about the corners than Fitzpatrick. The Steelers don’t have a true lockdown man corner. Joe Haden isn’t that guy anymore, and Cameron Sutton likely will never be that guy. Minkah Fitzpatrick is helping both of them, and the offense uses that by attacking in front of him and behind him. Fortunately, on this play, Minkah Fitzpatrick has the pass rush helping him out.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 4th quarter, 13:47

Cameron Sutton is the defensive back to the top of the screen.

Cameron Sutton isn’t a physical match for DK Metcalf, but here he only has to worry about Metcalf going outside and deep. With the end line helping him he undercuts the route and it would take a great throw and catch to beat this coverage. You can see Metcalf try to get that big swipe on Sutton, but Sutton is able to avoid it, largely because he isn’t on an island. Alex Highsmith and Chris Wormley split a sack because Geno Smith doesn’t have his first read, and doesn’t have time for anything else.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 07:25

DK Metcalf is the receiver to the bottom of the screen, T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

It isn’t just sacks that save the defensive backs though. Geno Smith wants this jump ball shot to DK Metcalf vs. Terrell Edmunds, but T.J. Watt gets a hand on Smith’s arm and it doesn’t matter if Edmunds was up to the challenge or not.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, Overtime, 7:17

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen. DK Metcalf is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Late in the game, after the Seahawks forced the Steelers to focus on the run the Steelers put Terrell Edmunds in the box, and then used him as half of a bracket on DK Metcalf, taking the underneath position while the corner took the deep responsibility. Joe Haden isn’t up to covering a high end receiver on an island, but this is an easy job for a great veteran corner. T.J. Watt gets the sack, but you can see how the Steelers adapted to the Seahawks run game while still dealing with Metcalf. It took a while to get the right adjustments in place, but once they did, it worked. At least most of the time...

Steelers vs. Seahawks, Overtime, 9:17

DK Metcalf is the slot receiver to the top of the screen, Tyler Lockett is the third receiver from the bottom.

This is a little overboard. The Steelers drop T.J. Watt into the flat, having him make contact with Metcalf to start the play. Joe Schobert is then covering Metcalf short, with inside leverage, Watt has anything short and outside, and Minkah Fitzpatrick deep. This much respect leaves the numbers unbalanced and Tyler Lockett takes advantage.

That’s 4 defenders covering two receivers, while the other side of the field is 3v3. Cameron Sutton ends up coming from his outside corner position to tackle Lockett.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, Overtime, 4:27

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

The last Seahawks possession they went back to a heavy set, drawing the Steelers into single-high safety, and this time the Steelers have Cameron Heyward on the bench and the Seahawks slide 6 blockers. Seriously, 6 blockers to T.J. Watt’s side. The Steelers have this one covered. Edmunds and Haden bracket Metcalf while Fitzpatrick helps Sutton with Lockett.

Smith sees there’s nothing there and takes off, but Watt is already closing on him and if you give T.J. Watt a chance to end the game, he’s going to take it.

T.J. Watt made the biggest play of the season so far, but a big part of it was the in-game adjustments the Steelers made to keep DK Metcalf in check and stop the Seahawks run game.

Even as the Steelers were getting run over in the third quarter, they continued to view DK Metcalf as the primary threat on the field. The strategy worked, as outside of those three drives the Steelers defense did a great job containing the Seahawks offense. It took some time for the Steelers to find the exact formula to counter the run while still containing the Seahawks receivers, but they did solve it, and it led them to a win.