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Steelers Vertex: Breaking down new Steelers’ safety Miles Killebrew

Whether he is listed as a strong safety, linebacker, or special teams player, what does Miles Killebrew bring to the Steelers?

Detroit Lions v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After breaking down various players from the Steelers 2020 roster who the team needed to make a decision about their future with the franchise, we decided to cover one of the new members of the 2021 Steelers this week. Our choice was new Steelers’ safety/linebacker Miles Killebrew, who comes to Pittsburgh via five years with the Detroit Lions.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Even though his career is only five years old, it makes a lot of sense to break down Miles Killebrew’s NFL stats into two different sections. During his first two seasons of 2016 and 2017 after being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, Killebrew started three games and logged 502 defensive snaps over those two seasons. Additionally, he had two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, six passes defensed, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, and 66 tackles.

Over the last three seasons, Killebrew has only had one start and logged a total of 88 defensive snaps in three years. Additionally, the only place he’s registered on the stat sheet has been tackles with a total of 39 over the last three seasons.

So what happened with Killebrew? Why did his defensive production fall off so much after his first two seasons?

The obvious reason seems to be there was a change in defensive coordinator for the Lions after the 2017 season. That’s right Steelers’ fans, after a defensive coordinator Teryl Austin moved on from Detroit, Miles Killebrew saw his use on defense drop significantly. In fact, Killebrew went from 353 defensive snaps in 2017 to 0 in 2018.

When it comes to special teams, Killebrew has been solid throughout his career with 1630 snaps in five seasons.

At this time, contract details for the one-year deal Killebrew signed with Pittsburgh has not been released. It is highly speculated his deal would be for the veterans minimum salary.

Now after looking at the stats and the contract, let’s look at what kind of tape Killebrew has put out over the last five seasons.

The Film Line:

As Dave brought up, Miles Killebrew’s defensive snaps took a nose-dive after Teryl Austin left Detroit. When he brought that up to me in preparation for this post I went right to Killebrew’s 2017 film and found this highlight play.

2017 Week 1, 4th quarter, 4:13. Miles Killebrew is the deepest safety to start the play.

No great play from Killebrew, the receiver falls and the ball floats right to him. More important than that, look at the defensive play. All three corners drop deep, linebackers head outside and the safeties step forward into the middle. This is the cover-3 modification the Steelers started running in the middle of 2019, Teryl Austin’s first season with the team.

Miles Killebrew joining the Steelers is absolutely tied to Teryl Austin, who used Killebrew more than any other NFL coach has. This is the main reason Killebrew can be considered a player with potential to be more than just a special teams player.

In 2017 Killebrew rotated series at strong safety, the Lions had a lot of bodies in the secondary, and none of them won the role outright. Killebrew isn’t going to beat out anyone to start, especially at safety, but let’s look at what he showed in his time playing with Teryl Austin.

2017 Week 12, 3rd quarter, 0:18. Miles Killebrew is the safety to the top of the screen.

Killebrew is covering a deep half, and he is completely unaware that the outside receiver has run past him. Terrell Edmunds has earned criticism for not playing the ball the best in deep zone, and taking some questionable angles, but that is the difference between solid play and good play, this play from Killebrew is terrible. He’s not a guy you can put in deep zone and have consistent defensive play.

2017 Week 2, 3rd quarter, 6:52. Miles Killebrew is the safety to the top of the screen.

When the field is shrunk and he can keep the play in front of him, he’s much better. His athleticism shows up well here, as well as his physicality in finishing the play. In this game Killebrew was in man coverage on then rookie TE Evan Engram a lot, with good results. He isn’t a safety, you can’t trust him to read the play and cover large areas of the field, but he isn’t a complete bust in coverage, he covers much more like a linebacker than a safety.

2017 Week 12, 4th quarter, 10:07. Miles Killebrew enters screen right after the snap.

Killebrew plays overall like a linebacker. He shows up in run defense a lot, he’s willing to take on blockers and he hits hard, he also has very few missed tackles, with less than 6% of his tackles broken for his career.

On defense, Miles Killebrew is an athletic tweener, he’s a big safety that has serious weaknesses in deep zone or an undersized linebacker that you have to worry about in the box. He fits the mold of a Marcus Allen, Antoine Brooks Jr. or Mark Barron. Whether he fits as a third inside linebacker like Mark Barron, or dime linebacker like Marcus Allen I can’t tell you, but I can tell you I like his prospects to be a solid depth piece on defense. But his main value will continue to be on special teams.

When Austin left the Lions, Killebrew dropped from over 350 defensive snaps in 2017 to 0 in 2018, but his snaps on special teams increased. In 2020 he played 84.3% of special teams snaps, and was on every unit but the field goal and extra point kicking team. On returns he is very good, finding his man and blocking him consistently. Where Killebrew really shines, is on kick and punt coverage.

Week 4, 4th quarter, 3:40. Miles Killebrew is the player to the bottom of the screen (not the one drawing a penalty for moving at the kick)

That’s one way to stop a kickoff return, just throw the guy trying to block you to the ground, and convince the returner he’s better off just falling down. If Killebrew is successfully blocked there, the returner has one man to beat to win the edge and take off, instead the play is downed at the 17 yard line, 8 yards better than a touchback.

Week 4, 2nd quarter, 1:56. Miles Killebrew (#35) is off the line, farthest to the right on screen.

That’s a nice block, he even keeps control of Taysom Hill’s arm, but more impressive is the hustle to get downfield and take away the outside lane on the return.

Week 16, 1st quarter, 5:03. Miles Killebrew is off the line, farthest to the left side of the screen.

Good hit on the initial contact, but the real beauty is after that. As #53 tries to stay with Killebrew and push him to the sideline Killebrew instead drives his blocker inside, getting himself free of interference, then covers from the numbers to the sideline, giving no ground to the punt returner. If Killebrew is driven close to the sideline there’s a lane to cut upfield just outside the numbers, if Killebrew is fighting a blocker or not as quick as he is, the returner has a good chance of getting outside him. Killebrew destroys this return with effort, intelligence and athleticism.

Week 16, 1st quarter, 0:16. Miles Killebrew is third from the right.

Now that is respect. Watch #51 for Tampa Bay, he crosses in front of Jarrad Davis (#40) to help block Miles Killebrew. Teams don’t just send interior protectors outside like that normally, the Buccaneers had picked out Killebrew as someone they had to deal with and provided help to his blocker.

The Point:

Miles Killebrew is another veteran special teams stud for the Steelers, but he could be more than that. With Teryl Austin coaching on the Steelers, this move seems to be more than just filling a special teams role, and Killebrew may have a good shot at carving out a niche as a valuable backup. I expect him to compete to backup Devin Bush as the dime linebacker like Marcus Allen did in 2020. From his tape I have confidence in saying I think he is a better fit for that role as well as a better special teams player than Marcus Allen was in 2020.