Last week, I wrote a “thoughts and observations” article on the offense from Pittsburgh’s preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks. This week, my attention is on the defense and its performance in Saturday night’s 16-15 win over Jacksonville in preseason game number two.
1. Run Defense
Seattle gashed the Steelers for 159 rushing yards on 26 carries, an average of 6.1 yards per attempt. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, Pittsburgh was the worst defense in the NFL last week in terms of yards-per-first-contact against the run. This means they contacted Seattle running backs further beyond the line of scrimmage than any team in the league. Or, to put it plainly, their run defense stunk. This is disconcerting, since stinking against the run is a theme from 2021 they were hoping not to carry over.
There is a caveat to that bad news, however. The Steelers played against Seattle without their five best run stoppers up front. There was no Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu, Larry Ogunjobi, T.J. Watt or Alex Highsmith. It stands to reason the results would have been better had some, and certainly all, of those players been in the lineup.
Saturday night in Jacksonville, the run defense was better. The Steelers gave up 97 yards on 30 carries for an average of 3.2 yards per carry, nearly half the average they yielded to Seattle. Watt, Alualu and Ogunjobi all played, which made a difference. Jacksonville ran a good amount of 12 personnel with their starters, meaning they had two tight ends on the field. The Steelers responded by playing their base 3-4, where Ogunjobi and Alualu were noticeably stout. They held their ground on vertical blocks and moved well laterally against horizontal ones, keeping their hands on the offensive linemen and denying them the ability to climb to the linebackers. This created seams the backers could fill, like Myles Jack (51) does here, coming from the back side on this toss play:
The other player who flashes in that clip is Terrell Edmunds (34), who rolls down prior to the snap then does a nice job setting the edge at the top of the screen. Edmunds was active in the run game Saturday night. So was one of his running mates at safety, Damontae Kazee. In the clip below, Kazee (24) comes from a pre-snap single high look to fill as a run-fitter inside Jacksonville’s bunch set to the top of the screen. He beats the down block of the outside receiver in the bunch, forcing running back Ryquell Armstead out of the hole into an eventual four-yard loss. Kazee and Edmunds each had five tackles on the night and were integral to Pittsburgh’s improvement.
Side Note: Armstead attended Millville High School in South Jersey, which is both the home of Mike Trout and a rival school for the team I coach. His senior year, Armstead rushed for 165 yards and 4 touchdowns in a dominating performance as his Millville squad crushed our team, 49-10. Armstead has been a fringe back in the league for four years now, but in high school, he was like a man playing among boys. It just serves as evidence of how incredibly good NFL players are, even the ones who will be cut in the coming days. Simply making it to an NFL camp puts a player among the truly elite within their field.
Not really. But the Steelers did get more aggressive against Jacksonville than they had been versus Seattle. They brought five or more defenders on four of the six snaps on Jacksonville’s opening drive, including this six-man pressure on the first snap of the game. It caused quarterback Trevor Lawrence to rush his throw, which was behind his intended receiver and fell incomplete:
On Jacksonville’s next series, the Steelers brought corner Cam Sutton (20) from the right slot, while Jack came late as a sixth rusher before peeling off to pick up the running back. The stunt didn’t get home, but it left T.J. Watt one-on-one against the right tackle, where he finished the play by doing T.J. Watt things:
Later in the game, the Steelers used an effective six-man pressure to force backup quarterback E.J. Perry into a poor throw that was picked off and returned 34 yards by Justin Layne. This set up a Mason Rudolph-to Tyler Snead touchdown toss that provided the game-winning points:
The Steelers had the second highest blitz frequency in the NFL last season at 41.4%, behind only the Ravens. There is no reason to think they will change that philosophy. In fact, if the game-plan they executed at times against Jacksonville is any indication, they may be even more aggressive with their blitzes and pressures in 2022.
3. Myles Jack is the Steelers’ best inside linebacker since Ryan Shazier
That may not be the greatest compliment ever bestowed upon a player, since the Steelers have been struggling to fill Shazier’s shoes since the career-ending injury he suffered in 2017. But it’s significant. Pittsburgh has gone through a host of candidates since then — Sean Spence, Jon Bostic, Mark Barron, Avery Williamson, Joe Schobert — with little to no success. They even converted safety Marcus Allen with the hope he could provide some of Shazier’s athleticism and play-making. That flopped, too.
In Jack, though, the Steelers have their man. He has already shown in just two preseason games that he is far superior to any of the players mentioned above. He has a nose for the football and an ability to see plays develop. He also has the speed to finish those plays before they become wins for the offense.
But Jack isn’t simply a finesse player. He is strong, too. Here, he is walked up into the B-gap between the left guard and left tackle, straddling the 30-yard-line. Watch him take on the block of guard Ben Bartch (78), then quickly shed him and make the tackle:
That’s a 6’6-310 pound NFL lineman Jack dispatches with ease. His technique is textbook, as he wins inside with his hands, gets them under Bartch’s pads (you can see the effect of that leverage by the way Bartch is jolted upwards when Jack strikes him), then uses a violent pull to disengage from the block. After years of watching Steelers’ linebackers bury themselves into or run around interior linemen, this is a sweet sight.
Jack applies that striking power as a blitzer, too. Here, from his left linebacker position, he bowls over running back Travis Etienne (1), who steps up to take him on in pass protection. The ball is out of Lawrence’s hand too quickly for Jack to generate much pressure, but the force with which he plays is evident.
Much has been made about Jack’s quickness and ability to run to the football. His power and aggression are proving to be just as impressive. He has looked like a complete linebacker thus far in Pittsburgh. Hopefully, his stellar play continues when the games actually count.
4. As for the other linebackers...
It wasn’t necessarily a discouraging performance for Devin Bush, whose preseason has been the opposite of Jack’s. But Bush didn’t do much to inspire confidence, either. He had four tackles, including this one on Etienne. Bush (55), aligned near the right hash, moves laterally then gets off a block to make the play. It seems like a nice tackle. When you look carefully, however, the limitations and concerns that persist about Bush are apparent.
First, Bush should diagnose this quicker. It’s a full-flow run play. The playside guard and center are both pulling. The wide receivers in the bunch to Bush’s right are blocking down. There is no counter action in the backfield. The back is flowing that way, too. Everything about that scenario says “Go!” Bush should be screaming downhill to fit off of Chris Wormley (95), who does a nice job beating his block to set an edge.
Bush doesn’t see it, though. Granted, he gets a blocker in his face almost immediately in tight end Evan Engram (17). But Bush should anticipate that down block based on the compressed formation and the movement of the pulling linemen. Instead, he seems caught off guard. Then, to compound the problem, he struggles to disengage. Think back to how decisively Jack disposed of the guard in the clip posted above. Now watch Bush struggle to get off a tight end. He needs to be more physical here. Punch, club, dip, rip, push/pull. Do something. By the time he does disengage and falls back inside, the back is five yards beyond the line of scrimmage in what becomes an eight-yard gain.
This one is worse:
That spin move to try to get away from the blocker is a Little League tactic. No coach ever teaches a linebacker to spin off of contact six yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Again, it looks like Bush does not anticipate the block, and because of that, he’s not in position to strike. This allows the blocker to get his hands on Bush in good position, and Bush cannot separate. He’s just slow in every aspect of his game right now.
The good news is that two of Pittsburgh’s other linebackers played well. Robert Spillane led the team with eight tackles, while rookie Mark Robinson continued to show the speed, power and play-making ability that attracted the Steelers to him. The 7th Round converted running back had five tackles and diagnosed plays quickly. Watch him here, aligned on the left hash at the 34-yard-line, fill decisively to make a sound tackle on Armstead:
Then there was this hit, which had all of Steeler Nation buzzing:
It’s not often you see a player literally launched off his feet by a hit. The thing that made that hit special — other than the pure joy of watching it — was the closing speed that put Robinson in position to make it in the first place. When he comes into the screen just inside the 50-yard-line, he is a blur. Robinson runs like a safety at 235 pounds. Steelers’ fans shouldn’t anoint him as Bush’s replacement just yet — he’s still pretty green, having played linebacker for just over a year — but he’s quickly making strides. It’s not inconceivable that he will show up in certain packages this season to make use of his ability.
5. Odds and Ends
Great one-on-one tackle by Kazee on a 4th-and-6 play in Pittsburgh territory near the end of the half to stop a Jaguars drive. The Steelers took over and went the length of the field behind Kenny Pickett for their first score of the game. Kazee was touted as a coverage specialist when he arrived in Pittsburgh, but has shown himself to be a willing and capable tackler, too...
When the Steelers didn’t blitz, they fell back into a soft zone. Too soft, actually. They gave up a lot of crossing routes and quick throws where there was plenty of cushion between defenders and receivers. This was likely by design, as they didn’t want to show much in the way of coverage disguise. There were very few rotations and no “rat” schemes where one of the safeties dropped into the high hole to disrupt crossers. That’s fine for preseason. But, come September, things will have to tighten up...
DeMarvin Leal filled up the stat sheet in his time on the field. He had two tackles, a tackle for loss, a sack and a quarterback hit. Leal continues to show his explosiveness off the ball and could be a great fit in a defense that, should it import some of Brian Flores’s schemes from Miami, may value his athleticism to create penetration and disrupt blocking schemes.
We didn’t see much from corner Carlins Platel, an undrafted rookie from South Carolina. Platel was one of the early surprises of training camp and seemed like a sleeper to make the final roster. But after two quiet preseason games, that now seems unlikely.
The second preseason game is often a dud, and this one was no exception. While the Steelers improved in some areas over last week, it didn’t have the same juice as the opener, when fans were eager to get their first look at the rookies, the quarterback competition and the team in general. Next week should be spicier, with final cuts looming.