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The Brian Flores blueprint for a Super Steelers defense

Looking at the 2018 Super Bowl and what Flores’ defense aspires to be.

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a firm believer that no one is as good as their best performance, or as bad as their worst. That statement is true because people have good days and bad days, and what we can expect to see in the future will lie somewhere in-between.

Saying that, we can look at a football team’s best performances and see what that team wants to do, what they work towards, and see it in a game where everything worked. For Brian Flores, that game happened on the biggest stage in football, the Super Bowl. In 2018 the New England Patriots declined to replace departing defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, instead going into the season without a defensive coordinator, and had linebackers coach Brian Flores take over play-calling duties.

After the 2018 Super Bowl Flores would be hired to be a head coach by the Miami Dolphins, meaning he technically went from being a linebackers coach to a head coach and has never been a coordinator. But while he’s never officially been a coordinator, the 2018 Patriots defense was his defense, and he brought it to the Miami Dolphins once hired as their head coach.

The point is that while Brian Flores wasn’t the defensive coordinator for the Patriots, he was the director of the defense when the Patriots held the Rams to 3 points in Super Bowl LIII. The Rams weren’t a lightweight offense in 2018 either. The Rams ranked second in the NFL in points scored and yards gained. They ranked 3rd in both yards per rush and yards per pass attempt. They were a top offense in the NFL, and, at the time, the Rams ranked 11th all-time in points scored in a season.

In the biggest game of the season, Flores and the Patriots held that offense to 3 points, tied with the 1971 Dolphins for the fewest points scored in a Super Bowl.

Looking at how they did it is revealing of the strengths of Brian Flores’ defense, and showcases what fans hope he can bring to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Super Bowl LIII, 1st quarter, 11:37

Look at the number of defenders on the line of scrimmage.

There are 6 defenders on the line of scrimmage, and not one of them drop until they see what is going on in the play. Flores likes putting bodies on the line, giving no ground at the snap, and putting defenders in great position to attack plays like this.

Watch No. 83 for the Rams, his job is to come across the play and block the linebacker to the top of the screen. Look at how tough that job becomes when the linebacker is already on the line and gets up-field at the snap. The block is rushed and not very effective, and instead of resetting to looking downfield for a pass, Jared Goff is sprinting to the sideline to avoid a hit — hard to make a good throw there.

Super Bowl LIII, 2nd quarter, 14:15

Watch the pass rush.

That’s a lot of movement for stunts right there, and while those stunts get picked up, it creates a big gap for No. 54 Donta Hightower (bottom of screen), an inside linebacker, to get to the quarterback. Watch how the right guard offers no help at all as he tries to figure out who he is blocking. That’s going to be a constant theme in this game, and this film room, Brian Flores loves to run stunts, and his stunts work really well.

Super Bowl LIII, 2nd quarter, 8:06

Watch No. 98, the nose tackle and No. 53, linebacker.

One of the Rams’ biggest problems in this game was how worried they were about those stunts. Here No. 98 and No. 53 are running a stunt, but the line is so worried about the linebacker coming inside that they offer no help on the nose and he crashes the pocket and forces Jared Goff to throw without being able to step into it. The ball is underthrown and incomplete.

Super Bowl LIII, 2nd quarter, 1:13

Watch No. 53, second from bottom on the line.

One thing I like about Flores defense is how aggressively they get up field on these stunts. No. 98 loops inside from the end spot, going behind the linebacker. Neither of them get the sack, that’s No. 54 Hightower who drives into a double team to lead the stunt, and when the guard tries to pick up the stunt Hightower is between the only lineman blocking him and the quarterback.

K.T. Smith did a great job breaking down Brian Flores scheme in his own film room article, and one of the things he covers in that article is the use of 4i alignment for defensive ends, giving them inside leverage on tackles. Here Hightower is in that role, and you can see how that inside leverage causes havoc when they lead a stunt into the guard/tackle gap. It is hard for the tackle to solo block that drive inside when he starts outside the rusher, and the guard has to deal with the looper coming into the middle.

The reason Flores blitzes so much is to keep the rushers and blockers even, so no one can double team, no one really has help. If you need help to block a guy like the tackle needs here, your offense is in trouble.

Super Bowl LIII, 2nd quarter, 4:56

Watch the pass rush.

Flores doesn’t always send a blitz. The look here is similar and just as aggressive as the blitzes above, but here the Patriots are only rushing 3, and with several Rams players looking to pick up blitzers before leaking out as targets, the coverage holds and the Patriots record a sack rushing three. You can see the time wasted as Goff is adjusting to the post-snap coverage after dealing with nearly-constant extra rushers leading up to this play. Also, look at the down and distance, this is 3rd and 2 and Flores drops 5 defenders on the first down line. No hot routes, no quick throws are going to work here.

Super Bowl LIII, 3rd quarter, 9:39

What stands out for me here is the defense is penetrating first, then reading the play. They attack forward, then figure out what is going on. They aren’t looking, seeing the run then flowing down the line to get into the play, they go forward first, then pursue. While that may lead to mistakes and holes, it also leads to blown up plays and makes the blocking assignments tougher.

Super Bowl LIII, 3rd quarter, 8:55

Watch No. 98, second from the top on the line.

Flores also uses overloads in his stunts. Here No. 98 is looping inside, and while he doesn’t get anywhere, it doesn’t matter, the pressure is attacking the blockers to his side, he just pulled attention inside to keep help options limited. Watch how No. 70 attacks the center’s inside shoulder. With the other guard picking up the loop, it creates a 2-on-3 rush, but the right guard (top of the screen) is irrelevant. The two rushers are attacking the outside shoulder of the tackle and the shoulder farthest from that guard of the center, and both get pressure.

This stunt doesn’t create a numbers advantage, it attacks a numbers disadvantage by using this stunt to manipulate and exploit leverage. The Rams have 6 blockers, the Patriots rush 4, and they still get pressure.

Super Bowl LIII, 4th quarter, 5:33

Watch the middle of the line.

There’s two stunts here, first the nose, No. 70 is leading with No. 53 looping inside, and then the end to the bottom of the line, No. 98, is crashing inside with No. 54 looping outside. The pressure this creates on the offensive line is fantastic. Again, there are five rushers here and five blockers, it’s 1v1 with no free lineman to add on and help. The Patriots only need #98 OR No. 70 to hit their gaps fast and hard enough to force a double team and they win. On this play it is No. 70 who gets the win, and No. 53, Kyle Van Noy gets the hit on the quarterback. But watch No. 98, look how hard he rushes into the guard. That’s not just coincidence, that guard is the player that can stop the stunt from No. 53 from working, by driving that hard at him either No. 98 or No. 53 is getting through that gap, the Patriots have three attacks on the center and guard, and the Rams only have two blockers.

Another thing I love is how hard the lineman drive into their blockers. They don’t care about reading the play, being able to get their hands up, disengaging, none of that matters. Crash into your target as hard as you can and drive them back. Make them stop you. That’s how you create open lanes for rushers, that’s how you keep linebackers clean, that’s how you create havoc for the speedy guys behind you to take advantage of.

Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds combined for 143 solo tackles in 2019. In that season, the defensive line was wrecking offensive lines and creating havoc, and those two were free to run laterally and sniff out ball carriers all year. In 2021 the leading solo tackler was Minkah Fitzpatrick with 80. Blockers were getting to the second level, and that left the free safety stuck with being the primary run stopper. That’s how you go from 3.8 yards per rush allowed in 2019 (3rd in NFL) to 5.0 yards per rush allowed in 2021 (32nd in NFL).

Brian Flores’ defense is built to have the big dogs on your defensive line attack and create havoc, using smart alignments and stunts to create leverage mismatches that force the offense to focus on containing the line to survive, leaving the linebackers free to roam and mop up plays. As we hear rumors that Stephon Tuitt is likely to return, and with Tyson Alualu and Cameron Heyward on the roster, this could be a fun year to watch the Steelers defense.