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Breaking down Brian Flores’ defensive philosophy and what it could mean for the Steelers

Taking a look at how Brian Flores’ philosophy could help the Steelers defense in 2022, and hopefully beyond.

Baltimore Ravens v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Steelers hired former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores on Saturday as their new linebackers coach and senior defensive assistant. It’s a stellar hire for the team, as Flores is widely regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the game. Here is a breakdown of Flores’ approach, and what it could mean for the Steelers.

What is Flores’ defensive philosophy?

To begin, Flores is thorough. His philosophy hinges on gaining an in-depth understanding of how opposing offenses operate. Flores spent four years in the scouting department in New England under Bill Belichick, who is so detailed-oriented that he is said to give prospective employees assignments that require 5-6 hours of film work breaking down a single play. That detail showed up in Flores’ work in Miami, where the Dolphins were excellent at attacking the tendencies and weaknesses of their opponents.

Scheme-wise, Flores based out of a 3-4. He was especially fond of using the “Tite” front, which positions defensive linemen on an inside shade against offensive tackles, in what is commonly known as a 4i technique. This is an effective front against the run, particularly the inside zone play, because the shade anchors a defender in the B-gap, which is the sweet spot for most zone-run teams. To block the shade, offenses are often forced to use double-teams, which frees up linebackers to pursue the football. In Pittsburgh, this would stand to benefit Devin Bush, who struggled with navigating clutter and getting off of blocks last season.

Miami’s “Tite” front, which features a pair of 4i tackles

The Tite front is also effective against gap schemes. With the B-gap occupied, it’s hard for an offense to pull its guards. This makes gap staples like Power and Counter difficult to run.

The Tite front also works well for teams with a good nose tackle. Because of the double teams created in the B-gaps, the nose is often left one-on-one against the center. A nose who can win those encounters can wreak havoc. In Miami, Christian Wilkins flourished in this role. Wilkins played all over the line for the Dolphins but was particularly effective on the nose. He finished second on the team in tackles in 2021 with 89, a huge number for an interior lineman. Massive space-eater Raekwon Davis (6’7-330) played well in that role, too.

Here’s an example. On this run against Kansas City, Davis held up the center to prevent him from getting an early release onto the linebacker, then stuffed the guard in the A-gap. On the backside, the 4i alignment of defensive tackle Zach Sieler (92) made it hard for the offensive tackle to cut off Sieler’s penetration. Together, Davis and Sieler caved in the right side of Kansas City’s line, while their teammates held their ground on the opposite side:

The Steelers don’t play a great deal of base 3-4, however, so it’s important to examine how Flores used sub-packages. This is where things get really interesting. When Miami went to their nickel or dime, they were extremely aggressive. In 2021, the Dolphins played over 50% of their defensive snaps in cover-0 or cover-1. They often paired these coverages with a “Mug” look at the line of scrimmage, where they created a +1 advantage by loading it with potential rushers and then forcing offenses to decide who was coming and who was falling into coverage. This created confusion in their protection schemes, leading to blitzers running free at the quarterback.

Here, against an empty set from the Rams, they walked up a safety and two backers to provide a 6-on-5 advantage at the line. Flores’ film study revealed L.A. would use a slide protection in this situation, meaning Miami could get a free runner off the edge:

Image courtesy of Jackson Krueger Sports

The wrinkle here is they used a delayed rush with linebacker Kyle Van Noy (53). This caused two problems for the Rams. First, it muddled their blocking scheme. Their five-man slide committed them to gap protection. When Van Noy didn’t show immediately, they wound up with their left guard and left tackle doubling Davis (98). Meanwhile, no one picked up Emmanuel Ogbah (91) off the left edge. Second, Van Noy’s delay caused quarterback Jared Goff to hitch up ever-so-slightly. The threat of Van Noy dropping into the middle of the field, where Goff’s hot route was breaking, forced him to a second read. That gave Ogbah time to get home with his rush, where he sacked Goff and forced a turnover:

Here’s one against the Seahawks. See if you can guess who’s coming out of this five-man pressure look:

Image courtesy of Thinking Football

Ok. Now watch the play in full:

You may have suspected some sort of loop stunt was coming, given the width of the ends. You may have guessed Van Noy (53) would fall off into coverage. But you couldn’t have predicted the blitz from the slot corner to quarterback Russell Wilson’s blind side. That’s because he wasn’t in the still frame. He came from outside the hash, abandoning his coverage responsibility in the process. Wilson looked to the middle of the field, where he expected an open receiver, but Van Noy was there. That caused Wilson to freeze, giving Ogbah (91) time to swoop in for the sack.

As a result of these types of pressures, where just about anyone could come or drop, the sacks in Miami were spread around. Safety Brandon Jones, for example, recorded five sacks in 2021. Safeties don’t get sacks because they are great pass rushers. They get sacks because the scheme provides them a path to the quarterback.

Miami’s pressure packages weren’t just effective at sacking opposing quarterbacks. The combination of pressure, camouflage and tight man coverage forced a combined passer rating of below 40 against their cover-0 and cover-1 looks in 2020 and 2021. They also allowed the Dolphins to finish 1st and 8th in the NFL, respectively, in turnovers in those seasons.

So, to summarize, Flores preferred a 3-4 Tite as his base front to take away the inside run game. In his sub-package, he was a blitz-heavy cover-0 or cover-1 with an emphasis on attacking the protection scheme of his opponents and using disguise to create confusion. The progress was significant. In three years at the helm in Miami, their defensive rankings improved every season:

2019 - Run Def (27), Pass Def (26), Total Def (30), Turnovers (29), Sacks (32)

2020 - Run Def (16), Pass Def (23), Total Def (20), Turnovers (1), Sacks (11)

2021 - Run Def (13), Pass Def (16), Total Def (15), Turnovers (8), Sacks (6)

What does this mean in Pittsburgh?

It’s no secret Mike Tomlin has a heavy imprint on the defensive X and O’s, so it may be naïve to think the addition of Flores will lead to significant changes.

However, given the similarities between the schemes Flores and Tomlin favor, it seems likely he’ll have some input. Like Miami, Pittsburgh is a base 3-4 and, increasingly, has gravitated towards man-coverage. The Steelers have led the league in sacks five straight seasons, so it’s not like they need help getting to the quarterback. But Flores’s creative disguises are sure to add some wrinkles to their pass rush.

They may also be willing to explore more use of his Tite front. Considering how the Steelers were gashed in the run game last season, it can’t hurt. They already have two ideal 4i players in Cam Heyward and Tyson Alualu to anchor the B-gaps. Coaxing Stephon Tuitt back into the fold to man the nose could be the lynchpin. If Tuitt still has a desire to play football, Flores’ scheme could make him a nightmare for opposing centers who must block him one-on-one.

Whether the Steelers can go as heavy on man-coverage as Flores preferred in Miami is questionable. Flores had two excellent corners at his disposal — Xavien Howard and Byron Jones — and he relied on them to hold up one-on-one. This is where the Steelers face a challenge. With an unsettled corner situation, they would need to solidify the position in order to use more of Flores’ approach.

This is not impossible, though. Free agent Joe Haden, who took to Twitter to applaud the hiring of Flores, could return. Ahkello Witherspoon was a revelation over the final quarter of last season as well. And, with significant cap space, the Steelers could certainly pursue a cover-corner to fit this scheme. They have options, if necessary, unlike in years past.

More than scheme, though, Flores’ impact will likely be felt at the positional level. Flores coached the linebackers in New England from 2016-2018. Over that time, he helped Dont’a Hightower develop from being a pure run-thumper to a well-rounded backer. He helped turn Van Noy into an impact player as well. Both were quick to diagnose plays and get to the football. These are areas where Devin Bush struggled last season. Bush was not fully recovered from the ACL injury that ended his 2020 season, but he seemed hesitant and indecisive. An accomplished coach like Flores should get him playing faster and more instinctually.

Finally, Flores should provide value in terms of scouting, preparation and game-planning. His time in New England taught him the value of taking away what an opponent does best and in making them beat with you with their Plan B. In Miami, Flores was praised for building a versatile defense that could adjust on the fly to how offenses attacked them.

That flexibility is a product of finding the right players to fit a team’s system. This is something the Steelers must work towards this off-season. Flores should have some ideas on how to do this. He may even serve as a recruiting tool to lure talent to Pittsburgh. His discrimination case against the NFL has resonated with many of its players. Coupled with his resume, he could provide a compelling reason for free agents to consider the Steelers.

In the end, the hiring of Flores is a boon to the defense. He brings a proven track record of success and an aggressive mindset that fits Pittsburgh’s style of play. Whether he is here just one year or for many to come, the defense will benefit from his focus, intensity and preparedness. Pittsburgh is better today than they were prior to hiring Flores. That represents a great start to the off-season.