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Subtle improvements will allow the Steelers to remain an elite defense in 2021

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense is already good, but could it stay that way without some key players missing in 2021?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers finished near the top of the NFL in a host of defensive categories in 2020. They were 1st in DVOA, 1st in sacks, 1st in quarterback pressures, 2nd in takeaways, 3rd in total yardage and 3rd in points per game. Pretty impressive stuff. By just about any metric, the Steelers fielded an elite defensive unit.

One issue dogged them down the stretch, however. While the offense rightfully shouldered much of the blame for the team’s late-season collapse that saw an 11-0 start transform into a 1-5 finish, including an ugly playoff exit at the hands of the Cleveland Browns, the defense faltered as well. They contributed to the collapse by displaying a penchant for fundamental breakdowns that often led to big plays. This article looks at some of those breakdowns and how the Steelers might correct them to remain an elite unit in 2021.

For all the Top 5 numbers the defense registered in 2020, one area where they were just mediocre was in the category of allowing explosive plays. The metric for explosive plays varies but it is generally defined as those of 20+ yards. Pittsburgh’s defense ranked 11th in the league in allowing explosive pass plays and just 19th in explosive runs. Many of these plays occurred down the stretch, where flaws in positioning, tackling and execution increased their prevalence.

In December, the Steelers dropped a 26-15 contest to the Bills. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs had a big night for Buffalo, catching 10 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown. Diggs led the NFL in receptions in 2020, so it was not surprising he did well. But the Steelers assisted by committing fundamental breakdowns that made his job easier.

Here’s an example. In the 3rd quarter, trailing 19-7 and badly in need of a stop, the Steelers lined up on a 1st and 10 play in a thinly-disguised cover-2 look. Safety Terrell Edmunds (aligned at the 50 yard line to the boundary in the photo below) crept into the box before retreating to his half-field responsibility at the snap. Corner Cam Sutton (circled) shaded Diggs at the line of scrimmage and played a funnel technique, forcing Diggs to release inside and then waiting for a route to attack the flat. Linebacker Ulysses Gilbert III (also circled) was responsible for the hook-curl zone, meaning any intermediate route that attacked between the numbers and the hash.

Buffalo ran a slant-flat concept with Diggs breaking inside and the H-back chipping pass rusher T.J. Watt before releasing outside. While Sutton did his job by funneling Diggs and sitting, Gilbert was far too aggressive attacking the chip-release. He chased the H-back, putting two defenders on the flat route and no one in the hook-curl zone. This opened a big window for quarterback Josh Allen, who threw a strike to Diggs for a 23 yard gain. The play kick-started a scoring drive that put the Bills ahead 26-7, ending any hopes of a Steelers’ comeback.

Gilbert’s presence in the lineup that week was necessitated by injuries at linebacker to Devin Bush, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane. He logged just 33 defensive snaps all of 2020. That inexperience was costly here, as it resulted in the poor execution of a simple scheme.

The following week, the Steelers played their worst game of 2020 on the road at Cincinnati. The Bengals were quarterbacked by Ryan Finley, who was making just his fourth career start and had never won a game as a starting quarterback. Finley and the 2-10 Bengals shocked Pittsburgh, winning 27-17.

The play that most typified Pittsburgh’s performance that night was a simple zone-read from Cincinnati. On zone-read, the line blocks inside zone, the running back aims for the playside A-gap and the quarterback reads an unblocked edge player. If the edge sits and waits, he gives the ball to the running back. If the edge comes down aggressively, he pulls the ball and goes.

Here, the line blocked zone to the right and Finley read the edge player to his left (Alex Highsmith, #56). When Highsmith chased the back, Finley pulled the ball and went 23 yards untouched into the end zone:

Defending zone-read is a matter of discipline. The edge player has to respect the quarterback’s ability to run. Clearly, Highsmith did not. No doubt Cincinnati’s coaches had seen him come down like this earlier in the game and waited for an opportune moment to have Finley pull the ball and go. It was a nice call by the Bengals that exploited the young linebacker’s aggressiveness.

Highsmith was not the only one to execute poorly, however. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick put himself out of position by getting lazy with his eyes. Fitzpatrick was not a run-fitter in the box here and should have been conscious of the play spilling out the backside. He got caught watching the flow, however, and could not recover. Slot corner Cam Sutton, meanwhile, who was just out of the frame, got run off in coverage without looking back to find the football. Sutton locked on his receiver and followed him all the way to the end zone without ever realizing the play was a run.

The following week against Indianapolis, poor execution again cost the Steelers a big play, as receiver Zach Pascal got behind the defense for a 42 yard touchdown catch from Phillip Rivers.

Look at the pre-snap frame of the play below. Pascal is at the top of the screen with corner Joe Haden shading him outside. Fitzpatrick is circled in his safety position near the 30 yard line. Haden’s alignment, coupled with Fitzpatrick’s depth, indicated this was some sort of bracket coverage where Haden would take away any deep outside route while funneling any deep inside route towards Fitzpatrick:

As the play progressed, Pascal remained vertical as he crossed the 30 yard line, with Haden attached to his outside hip. Fitzpatrick angled towards him but also read the tight end, who began to break towards the middle of the field from the right hash at the 34. Fitzpatrick had to make a choice, then, on whether to keep getting depth to help on a possible inside break from Pascal or to pick up the tight end as he cleared the linebackers and crossed the field:

Because there were five pass rushers coming for Rivers, Fitzpatrick expected the football to come out fairly quickly. Thus, he made the logical choice to leave Pascal and attack the tight end. Unfortunately, if we look back to the photo above, we can see from the circle surrounding the pocket that the Steelers voided their inside rush lanes and created a huge hole into which Rivers could step to buy himself an extra second. That second coincided with Fitzpatrick leaving Pascal and Pascal breaking to the post against Haden. Haden, with outside leverage and no help to the middle, had no chance once Rivers stepped up and unloaded. Touchdown, Indy.

It’s tempting to blame Fitzpatrick for leaving Haden here. The real culprit, however, was a poorly executed cross-fire stunt by the Steelers’ inside linebackers, Avery Williamson and Vince Williams. Williamson, who crossed first, got pushed too far to his right by the center while Williams got too far upfield and was washed out of the play to his left. This was a double A-gap stunt but because both backers voided their A-gaps, Rivers was able to step up and target Pascal:

Had Williamson and Williams squeezed their gaps better, Rivers would have been forced to throw the shorter route to the tight end, on which Fitzpatrick was breaking, or eat the ball for a sack. These were subtle errors but costly ones. When a team brings pressure and puts its coverage players in difficult spots, they must confine the quarterback to the pocket.

The breakdowns the Steelers were committing at the end of the regular season caught up with them in excruciating fashion in their playoff game. Perhaps no play typified these errors more than a 40-yard 1st quarter touchdown pass from Baker Mayfield to Jarvis Landry on a simple in-cut.

The play started with motion by Landry from one side of the formation to the other. Nickel corner Mike Hilton followed him, indicating man-coverage from the Steelers. Cleveland did a nice job creating space with the motion, allowing Landry a clean release at the snap. With Hilton protecting against an outside release, Landry stemmed outside before making a quick break back to the inside, where Mayfield rifled him the football:

The frustrating thing for Pittsburgh fans as you watch this play is the following: the defense was prepared for this very concept. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was walked up to the line of scrimmage at the hash on the 40 yard line. Fitzpatrick bluffed like he was blitzing but instead fell back into coverage. His job was to undercut any in-breaking route, which he almost did, with the throw to Landry just clearing his fingertips:

Fitzpatrick made one mistake here, which was to lock his eyes on Mayfield and to never locate the receiver. Had he “kept his head on a swivel,” as coaches like to say, he could have located Landry’s depth, dropped with greater urgency and knocked away or even intercepted the throw.

Still, even though the throw was complete, it should have been a short gain. That’s because safety Terrell Edmunds was sitting over the top in the middle of the field, ready to make the tackle. Edmunds, though, never broke. For some reason, he got width along the 25 yard stripe rather than driving on an angle towards Landry. That width, as you see below, put him out of position and unable to make a play. Landry scored, the Browns led 14-0 five minutes into the game and the rout was on.

These issues were not glaring. It was a step here, a poor angle there, a lack of discipline when executing a technique. A team can get away with that stuff when they’re playing weaker opponents early in the season. But when the weather turns cold and every week is crucial, mistakes are magnified.

To beat great teams, and to make the Super Bowl run the Steelers brought Ben Roethlisberger back for, they will have to tighten up. Egregious or not, fundamental mistakes that led to big plays cost them down the stretch last season. Despite losing key players like Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton to free agency, they remain an extremely talented group on defense. With greater attention to detail, emphasis on reads, steps and techniques, and (hopefully) a healthier roster that allows for cohesiveness, the Steelers can produce an elite unit again in 2021.