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Breaking down how the Steelers pass rush thwarted the Bills without blitzing

The Steelers played one of the best pass rushing games of the Keith Butler era in Buffalo

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers week one victory over the Buffalo Bills was full of interesting storylines. But none more interesting or impactful than the Steelers defense holding the Bills offense to 16 points on 11 drives. The Bills ranked third in points per drive in 2020, through one week of 2021 they rank 25th.

The other thing that stands out is the Steelers didn’t blitz the Bills. They blitzed a total of 2 times, the lowest blitz rate of the Keith Butler era. While that could be something the Steelers do more this season, it could also be an adjustment to the Bills and Josh Allen, who was one of the better quarterbacks against the blitz in 2020. Whatever their reasons for not blitzing, the Steelers were able to create pressure on Josh Allen with just a 4 man rush. And that is what we are going to look at in this film room.

Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the bottom of the screen, third from the bottom of the screen.

The Bills had great field position to start the game due to a 75 yard kickoff return. the Steelers put them in 3rd and 5, and Cameron Heyward did his thing, beating the center and getting a hand on the pass to hold the Bills to a field goal. In our Vertex before this game, Dave Schofield and I covered Cam Heyward’s pressure generation from 2020, showing how he was an impactful rusher even with only 4 sacks. I argued then that if the Steelers turned Cam Heyward loose with Stephon Tuitt out, we’d see 2017 level impact, when Heyward finished the season with 12 sacks. That’s what they did, and that’s what we got.

Melvin Ingram is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

Melvin Ingram’s addition to the Steelers defense was a great move, giving the Steelers a three rusher rotation outside, and Melvin Ingram responded in his first game as a Steeler. This goes down as a holding penalty and not a sack, but Melvin Ingram deserves sack credit for this play where the offensive tackle has to tackle Ingram to avoid the sack. Melvin Ingram, when healthy, had showed elite level power throughout his career.

Looks like he’s healthy again.

Watch the pocket on this play...

The biggest problem with Stephon Tuitt being out is the plays when Cameron Heyward took a rest. With no Cameron Heyward and no Stephon Tuitt the Steelers generate no pressure up the middle.

T.J. Watt is also on the bench, leaving zero players on the field who have recorded more than 2 sacks in a Steelers uniform. The Bills effectively chip Ingram to win the right side and the Bills left tackle uses the Alejandro Villanueva chop to take down Alex Highsmith. The result is time for Josh Allen to find Emmanuel Sanders and drop this dime on the sideline for a first down.

But it wasn’t all bad when Heyward and Watt went to the bench, the Steelers just had to get creative.

The Steelers are in a three man front look here (the defender on the line to the top is the nickel back), with Melvin Ingram lined up as a linebacker. Norwood rushes, both lineman crash to their right and Ingram loops behind them. This isn’t a blitz, it’s a 4-man rush because the Steelers drop Alex Highsmith into coverage.

Let’s look at this fantastic defensive play from Josh Allen’s perspective. The nickel 7th round rookie fails to disguise his blitz, so Allen immediately looks to that side. But the Steelers heavily rotate both Devin Bush and Joe Schobert that way, and Tre Norwood rushes really wide to put himself in the path of any dump off to the RB. With the heavy shift from the ILBs the gap should be to the other side, but that’s exactly where Alex Highsmith dropped in coverage. With Melvin Ingram crashing the pocket, Allen steps outside the tackle box and throws the ball into the largest patch of grass he can find.

That’s not a sack, but man if it isn’t one of the coolest plays from week 1. The Bills lost that play to Keith Butler’s creative zone blitz. Dick LeBeau would be proud.

In the second quarter T.J. Watt made his presence felt as well.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen, Tyson Alualu is the defensive tackle to his side.

Tyson Alualu is a beast. He controls the guard with one arm, and all the guard can do is keep his penetration to the outside. That just sets up Watt’s inside move that steers the tackle into Alualu’s shoulder, freeing Watt for one of his 5 QB hits and a throw in the dirt.

My favorite thing about this play is Alualu taking two blockers and still ending up right next to Josh Allen. You can see Melvin Ingram showing off his power again while Chris Wormley is watching Allen in case he tries to escape.

That QB hit set up the next play.

T.J. Watt is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen, Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the top of the screen.

Watt’s tackle is thinking about that last play, as is the guard who locks onto Wormley to seal him from going outside to set up another stunt. But this time Watt is straight up speed rushing, and while that puts him well behind Josh Allen in the pocket, it’s fine, because Steelers don’t rush alone, Watt has Cameron Heyward coming up the middle and Melvin Ingram containing the pocket. The great play here is Cameron Heyward reaching out with his inside arm to close off the lane between himself and Ingram, forcing Allen right into Watt’s path. T.J. Watt does T.J. Watt things and punches the ball free.

Heyward hurdles Watt and gets the ball for a huge turnover to keep the Steelers in the game in spite of how poorly the offense was playing in the first half.

With everyone else showing up big, second year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith had to get in on the action.

Compare this rush to the one four above this, when Highsmith ended up on his face from a chop to his back. In this play Highsmith gets even farther inside his blocker, and what was a borderline chop/tackle is clearly just a tackle this time. But Highsmith isn’t okay with just drawing a penalty, he’s up and chasing Josh Allen before the ref can finish pulling the flag out of his waistband.

While Alex Highsmith didn’t record any QB hits or sacks in week 1, he was still making an impact.

Have you seen this play before?

Yep, it’s that zone blitz we saw earlier. Josh Allen isn’t a chump, he’s a damn good quarterback and he isn’t fooled this time. He sees the alignment, looks long enough to read the drop by Ingram then dumps the ball to his running back that was lined up outside. In a fitting Dick LeBeau throwback Cameron Sutton tackles the catch and denies any yards after the catch. Josh Allen was confused the first time the Steelers showed this blitz, and while the second time he was it he didn’t solve it, he wasn’t confused.

Arthur Maulet is the nickel back.

The Steelers didn’t just rely on creative rushes to confuse Allen and buy time, they can also fake those blitzes to throw off the quarterback’s progression.

Maulet shows blitz, not even trying to hide it. That uncovered slot receiver tells Allen something is going on. Allen immediately looks to that side post-snap because his receiver is either going to be open, or whatever shenanigans the Steelers are running, that’s where he’ll see what it is. What he sees is man coverage, and he immediately turns to his #1 target, Stefon Diggs, trusting him to win a man matchup. Diggs is up to the challenge and the Bills get a nice gain.

I wanted to show this play because you can see the time that fake bought the pass rush, and you can see how good Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs are. The Steelers slowed down a high powered offense, and while Josh Allen missed a few throws and there were a couple of drops that hurt, anyone telling you the Bills were just bad this week is wrong. They didn’t have success because the Steelers defense stopped them, Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs were not having a terrible day from their side, there just weren’t many plays to make.

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

Another nice gain for the Bills here, this time we’re looking at the weakness of a 4 man rush, and one of the reasons the Steelers aren’t likely to abandon the blitz altogether this season. The Bills slide to T.J. Watt’s side, and while Tyson Alualu again gains good penetration to set up T.J. Watt’s stunt, the center sliding to that side means there is still a lineman waiting for Watt when he loops inside even with Alualu being double teamed.

Cameron Heyward is the defensive tackle to the top of the screen.

Again the Bills slid the center to T.J. Watt’s side. Again Tyson Alualu is rushing hard, fast and wide. Only this time it isn’t a stunt. Watt rushes upfield and turns the corner, making sure to get his body into the tackle. Alualu uses that tackle to help him turn inside and put pressure on Josh Allen. The center looking for Watt looping inside? He’s left with nothing to do while Cameron Heyward is one on one with a guard. Heyward is contain rushing, controlling his blocker more than beating him, staying in position to deny Josh Allen an escape route. When Allen tries to escape Watt and Alualu’s pressure, Heyward is there to record a sack.

The Steelers generated pressure on Josh Allen with excellent individual effort, great execution and with creative rush design. When they didn’t generate pressure, the Bills moved the ball.

While T.J. Watt was the star of the pass rush, recording 5 QB hits, 2 sacks and a forced fumble, everyone played a valuable part in thwarting the Bills high-powered passing attack, with hustle, speed, power and intelligence. It’s hard to overstate what a great performance we just saw from the Pittsburgh Steelers pass rush.