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The anatomy of a busted play for the Steelers defense vs. the Eagles

The difference between a short gain and a long touchdown can be very small.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense gave up exactly one touchdown in Philadelphia this Thursday, but that touchdown has a lot of people talking, and a lot of judgements being made about Steelers players because of it. But really, who is to blame? How does a routine wide receiver screen turn into a 79 yard touchdown?

Let’s go to the film.

First quarter, 0:33.

That’s clearly not how the Steelers want to defend screen passes. The Eagles lineman get out and block the safety and inside linebacker on that side, the receiver wins his block against Sutton and a speedy young receiver take it to the house.

We could break down the play from each position and try to figure out who is most to blame, but there’s an easier method, because the Eagles and Steelers gave us an nearly identical play against the same defense a little later in the game.

For comparison, I cut the TD play clip to be roughly the same length. Here’s that one first:

And now the second play:

Second quarter, 10:23.

On second and 11, this screen gains 6 yards. The offense switches which receiver they throw to, but it is roughly the same play, against the same nickel blitz out of cover-1 man as the earlier play, this one gains 73 fewer yards though.

Now let’s go through the two plays, starting with the defensive backs. both times Arthur Maulet blitzes, and jumps to make the pass tougher. Both plays Cameron Sutton and Terrell Edmunds approach but are blocked, the plays even have similar approach angles from Free Safety Tre Norwood.

The defensive backs treat both plays the same.

The difference isn’t there. Check out the plays at the point of the catch.

First from the touchdown:

And from the second play:

Do you see the difference?

Outside linebacker Jamir Jones (#44) recognizes the screen, and gets out to make the tackle. On the touchdown play, Melvin Ingram is rushing hard at the quarterback and is too far behind the screen to make a play. On the second play, every other player is in just as bad or worse position, except for Jamir Jones. While you’d love to see Terrell Edmunds beat the block from an offensive lineman, or Cameron Sutton pull a Joe Haden, bully his blocker and get into the play, or even Tre Norwood take a Minkah Fitzpatrick angle to the ball, the difference is the help from the defensive front.

Like this screen pass from Week 11 of 2020.

Steven Nelson is up tight to the line and beats the block of his receiver, “slot linebacker” Bud Dupree evades the block from the offensive lineman and Minkah Fitzpatrick comes free to the ball as well, but the real story here is Cameron Heyward reading the screen and shutting it down from the inside. If Heyward isn’t there the receiver has a chance to beat Nelson inside for a decent gain. The key to defending a screen pass is help from the defensive front.

The preseason is glorified practice, Melvin Ingram has read screens well in the past, has an interception from it, he just didn’t read it that time, and no one else was able to make the play either. Also, as much as Steeler fans hate linebackers lined up over receivers, Bud Dupree does a much better job than Terrell Edmunds at dealing with lineman on screen passes. Just saying.