Some semblance of football returned to the Steel City last Sunday, and it was rather refreshing to watch.
Of course, Matt Canada’s offense deserves its flowers. The Steelers generated six plays of over 20 yards for the first time in nearly two years, eclipsing 200 yards on the ground as well. Despite an up-and-down game from Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren and Pickett’s legs all came up significantly big.
However, in this era (and really all eras) of Pittsburgh football, a defense applying the clamps has become a focal point for victory. That proved as much against the Saints, whom the Steelers limited to just 186 total yards — the team’s fewest yards allowed this year.
The return of T.J. Watt proved absolutely instrumental. The star edge rusher was complemented phenomenally by fellow game-wreckers Alex Highsmith, Cam Heyward and Larry Ogunjobi.
Yet, for maybe the first time all year, Pittsburgh’s secondary put on a show — even sans Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ahkello Witherspoon and William Jackson III. Damontae Kazee, Levi Wallace, Terrell Edmunds and Arthur Maulet all recorded a PFF grade of over 74, the first time the Steelers had four defensive backs accomplish that in two years.
From terrific deflections and instinctive plays to strong stops to convoluted pre- and post-snap looks, here’s a glimpse into how the Steelers’ secondary played against New Orleans.
A significant shift that defensive coordinator Teryl Austin made in this game was to play much more man coverage, as opposed to his traditional Cover Three package. That meant that Pittsburgh’s DBs needed to be on point with mirroring their receivers and firing on the ball, both of which happened pretty consistently.
This play by Arthur Maulet on third-and-seven was absolutely stupendous. With the Steelers in Cover One man, Maulet is situated in the slot against Chris Olave, who leads all rookies in receiving. The Saints run a slot fade, yet Maulet does well to stay with the Ohio State product.
There certainly is a bit of space, and Dalton should have thrown a better ball, but Olave is in position to make the contested catch. However, Maulet wedges his right hand into the catch point, keeping it in position until Olave hits the ground and the ball bounces incomplete.
Making the move to man was especially intriguing given how the Steelers have struggled mightily in covering the middle of the field; with zone, there is certainly more cushion in that area. However, when you get reps like this from Cam Sutton, that point becomes moot.
Opposite Kevin White, Sutton breaks on the slant, closes space and extends his right arm through to rip the ball away.
It was far from only Maulet and Sutton, though. Wallace had likely his best game as a Steeler courtesy of the plays below.
On this snap, Wallace is lined up against Juwan Johnson in 2-Man. Johnson runs an in-breaking route, which Wallace follows well. The tight end creates a bit of space with a slight wiggle at the top of the route stem, but Wallace closes it in a hurry and lunges to contest a low catch. Granted, this throw from Dalton is poor because of the pressure by Highsmith, but still a plus rep from Wallace.
When Wallace and Edmunds both play at levels this high, good things are bound to happen.
Pittsburgh shows a two-high look pre-snap but rotates Edmunds down into Cover Three Buzz, one of Austin’s most frequent coverages this year. Keeping his eyes homed in on Dalton, the safety shows off his incredible 41.5-inch vertical, tipping this pass with one mitt. Even after it’s misdirected mid-flight, Wallace bats it away beautifully to his own accord. This will probably be one of the Steelers’ best coverage reps of 2022.
Moreover, Wallace effectively ended the game with this Herculean interception (credit to @Steelers_DB for the footage, as NFL+ does not include interceptions. He does great work, and you should follow him!).
In Cover One Robber, Wallace has little help on the perimeter against White running a go. Still, Wallace stays square, flips his hips, makes slight contact on the outside shoulder during the route and high-points the football for a ludicrous pick. Despite being nearly three inches shorter than White, the cornerback rips the ball away — the second time Pittsburgh had actually won a contested catch.
Before Wallace’s pick with just over four minutes to go, the recently activated Kazee got in on the fun with the help of the Alabama product.
In his deep half, Kazee stays disciplined until breaking on the dig route. Despite a good ball from Dalton, Wallace helps swat the pigskin into Kazee’s awaiting arms. This pick isn’t easy to secure given the traffic in front of him, so hats off to Kazee.
How about one more standout play for good measure? It doesn’t even involve a starter, either.
Without Fitzpatrick, Tre Norwood saw only eight snaps, but the second-year DB made use of this one. On third-and-18, New Orleans runs a draw with Alvin Kamara. Norwood encroaches downhill from his safety spot and lowers the shoulder to make the tackle, a play that Fitzpatrick was assuredly proud of.
Between the Steelers’ cornerbacks and safeties, Pittsburgh’s secondary put together one of the more cohesive back-end performances we’ve seen in recent memory against the Saints. Granted, New Orleans’ receiver group of Olave, Jarvis Landry and Kevin White is not the most prolific, but this tape is still a testament to good play.
No, it wasn’t all perfect: the Saints drove right down the field in a textbook two-minute drill before halftime due to executing coverage beaters. NOLA’s touchdown occurred on a coverage bust between Wallace and Edmunds, which provided the Saints their only end zone trip of the day. In the grand scheme, though, this game is one you’d mount to the refrigerator.
The next step for Austin’s secondary is to extrapolate this performance on a weekly basis, which it’s struggled to do all season. Even without Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd should provide an instant crack at doing just that in a marquee matchup this Sunday.