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What Mark Robinson brought to the Steelers defense against the Ravens

The rookie linebacker got his first significant action of the season in a game tailor-made for his style.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is headed into the final week. While some teams have their rookies falling off at the end of a long season, the Steelers seem to be hitting their stride. One particular rookie, Mark Robinson, saw his first start in Week 17. So how did he ultimately perform? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

The 225th overall pick of the 2022 NFL draft, linebacker Mark Robinson attended three different colleges before being drafted by the Steelers in the seventh round. It was the last one, Mississippi, where he made the transition from running back to linebacker. With so little experience at the position, it was the wise choice for the Steelers to hold off on throwing Robinson into the fire and have him learn the intricacies of the NFL before seeing significant time on the field. Simply because Robinson is able to do things now does not mean he would have been able to do them earlier in the season.

The Week 17 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens was Robinson‘s third game in which he saw snaps this season. Getting a helmet in Week 6 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers due to injuries, Robinson only saw five snaps on special teams and never took the field on defense. In Week 12 against the Indianapolis Colts, Robinson was active but didn’t even see special team snaps during the game. It wasn’t until Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers where Robinson was utilized for seven snaps on defense but had no statistics.

In Week 17 against the Ravens, Robinson officially got the start for the Steelers as he was on the field for the first defensive snap of the game. Robinson played 26 of the Steelers 52 defensive snaps and officially had seven tackles in the game with two being solo and five being assists.

When it comes to some of the statistics beyond those officially kept by the NFL, Robinson was credited with one missed tackle according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). Additionally, Robinson was credited with two defensive stops which is what PFF considers a “failure” for the offense.

Looking at his PFF scores, Robinson had a 57.5 overall grade for defense where he had a 52.5 grade against the run, a 52.3 score in terms of tackling, and a 67.1 score in coverage. According to PFF, Robinson was not targeted in the passing game on the six snaps he was in coverage. Both Geoffrey and I felt this was a mistake, and apparently so did the more reliable Pro Football Reference (PFR) who had Robinson giving up a 14-yard reception on his only target.

So how did the rookie do in his first significant action of the season? The numbers only tell so much, so let’s see what the film has to say.

The Film Line:

Mark Robinson followed his 7-snap game against Carolina where he recorded no stats with immediate impact.

Steelers @ Ravens, 1st quarter, 6:56

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

Mark Robinson starts heading in the wrong direction here, clearly reading the interior offensive line. Despite the mistake, he recovers and makes the tackle. Mark Robinson’s aggressive play has endeared him to fans and earned him playtime, but you can see here how his anticipate and attack style of play can cause him to get caught biting on any misdirection.

Robinson often resembles an unguided missile, just point him in the right direction and set him loose. In the next play we get to compare that to a player on the Steelers who has never been recklessly aggressive and is more likely to suffer from being too cautious.

This is pre-snap, watch Terrell Edmunds communicating coverage changes with the motion, giving Robinson his assignment.

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker moving from the middle of the field, Terrell Edmunds (#34) is pointing.

Edmunds has been directing these alterations for a few years now, freeing Minkah Fitzpatrick and the linebackers up to worry about how to execute their assignments.

Steelers @ Ravens, 1st quarter, 6:20

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

This play works for the Ravens because Robinson is more aggressive in his coverage while Edmunds is more reactive. Edmunds was victimized and vilified in 2019 for his deep safety play where he did a great job keeping everything in front of him and limiting big gains but doing so to the exclusion of actually challenging the catch. He’s gotten better at that, but you can still see here he’s more likely to be a split second late than in time to make a play. It makes him a great partner for Minkah Fitzpatrick who excels when he’s taking aggressive risks, and a great player to be communicating adjustments, but you can see the attack the play versus limit the gain mentality between Edmunds and Robinson.

I think when you consider Mike Tomlin’s consistent statement that he’d “rather say woah then sic ‘em,” you can see why Mark Robinson is getting snaps when he’s doesn’t fully know what he’s doing out there, and why Terrell Edmunds was never a priority resigning for the Steelers this offseason.

The main reason Tomlin values those aggressive players is they can learn to read defenses and learn to take a moment before attacking to ensure they are seeing the right thing. It is much harder to teach a naturally cautious player to read and react faster.

Steelers @ Ravens, 1st quarter, 5:38

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

A few plays later the Ravens go back to the same play design, just running it in the opposite direction this time. Mark Robinson makes this tackle at the line of scrimmage for no gain, compared to the four-yard gain the first time they ran it. This play is an impressive one for the young linebacker, showing almost immediate learning and growth, and also some great footwork on the play.

Let’s slow it down.

First you see his step to the right, and you can see his helmet turn to the middle a bit as he looks for and sees the pullers going to his left. Then I want you to notice his third and fourth steps after he starts moving to attack the play. Robinson sees the tackles coming into the run lane a bit wide and modifies his attack angle with a slight cut to his right. You can see how that puts him in a harder place for the lineman to reach, and also sets him up to explode into the runner.

This play is why Steeler fans should be excited about the potential of Mark Robinson; this is a really good rep by the young man. This is exactly how you want a linebacker to play this snap. You could put a Jack Lambert or Ray Lexis jersey on Robinson for this specific play and it wouldn’t look out of place. It’s just one play, but it’s about as good as you can be in that play.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 15:00

Mark Robinson (#93) is the inside linebacker to the left.

I love this play as well. Robinson is moving before Robert Spillane can motion, and he gets to the play fast enough to divert Gus Edwards’ block, allowing Terrell Edmunds to get a free shot at the runner. Robinson doesn’t win the contact with Edwards, but he gets to the spot quick enough to draw the block and force the run flatter and farther outside.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 10:50

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker in the middle of the screen.

Another good rep by Robinson here as he navigates traffic to find the back. I love how Robinson attacks the ball carrier as well, he’s not just trying to secure the tackle, he’s twisting him to limit how far the ball can move forward. Edwards is trying to dive forward but ends up with his feet farther downfield than the ball.

Lastly, I want to point out T.J. Watt on this play. Watt is another super aggressive player who attacks first and analyzes second. On this play Watt gets to the runner, but is flying too fast to get enough grip to bring him down. Robinson finishes the play almost immediately, and Watt gets credit for a tackle assist on this play. Gus Edwards comes completely free of Watt’s grip, but this isn’t a missed tackle because Robinson finishes it right away.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 2:20

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker to the left of the hash marks.

This is a missed tackle. Neither Watt nor Robinson are able to bring J.K. Dobbins down on this one, but I want you to notice the time they cost Dobbins here. Dobbins isn’t able to turn up field and accelerate because he has two different people grabbing hold of him. Now look at the lane he’s heading into. If he’s there a half-second earlier with a bit more speed, Robert Spillane is unlikely to get off the block in time and Dobbins is running free with Minkah Fitzpatrick trying to chase him down.

The point I’m making here is Robinson is going to miss tackles, just like T.J. Watt is going to miss tackles. Like how a baseball shortstop with great reaction time and range is going to have more errors just because they will reach balls that other players won’t, even if they don’t make the catch.

This is a missed tackle, but the fact that he got there and slowed the runner allowed his teammates to make the play. Obviously, we’d love some superhuman Troy Polamalu play here where he somehow brings the runner down for a loss, but this is not a negative play by either Watt or Robinson, even if the stats say they missed a tackle.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 1:14

Mark Robinson (#93) is the inside linebacker to the right.

Robinson finishes this tackle, but the best part of this play is how he fends off a blocker before breaking on the ball. You can see Robinson meet and negate the push from the lineman and then move to make the play. This is good stuff— from his positioning behind his lineman to make the combo block work back to him, to his meeting that block with force, the pursuit and wrap up. All of it is good stuff.

Mark Robinson is a natural run-defending linebacker. He’s a dang good one, and the Steelers are fortunate to have gotten him with their 7th-round pick this year. He was a big difference in this game, a key part of the winning effort.

That doesn’t mean it was all good though.

Steelers @ Ravens, 2nd quarter, 0:38

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker near the hash marks to the top of the screen.

The Ravens adapted to the presence of Mark Robinson in two ways. First they started passing more out of heavier sets to take advantage of Robinson in coverage.

You can see how Robinson stays way back here, and Jamir Jones (#48, OLB to top of screen) comes up to defend the dump off. That leaves Mark Andrews wide open by the first down marker. This play was with 38 seconds left, and Jones left the Ravens best receiver alone on the sideline to come help cover for Mark Robinson.

Robinson is not very good in zone coverage, but the bigger problem in this game was his teammates knowing that, and not trusting him to do his job.

The second strategy was to get Robinson off the field by running out of dime and nickel sets or using motion to pull him out of the box.

Steelers @Ravens, 3rd quarter, 3:42

Mark Robinson (#93) is the linebacker that follows the motion out of the box.

The Steelers go man here to reduce Robinson’s role in coverage, and the Ravens respond by using motion to take Robinson out of the box entirely. This play looks a lot like the Steelers defenses that have given up big rushing games the last few seasons. It was the longest gain for the Ravens all game.

The Point:

Mark Robinson provided the Steelers run defense with a big spark and was a catalyst of their Week 17 win over the Ravens. The difference he brought in run defense can easily be argued as the main difference between the Raven’s 215 rushing yards in Week 14 and their 120 yards in Week 17.

But despite the benefits Robinson brings, the Ravens were able to exploit him as well, and that was with Tyler Huntley at quarterback. The Steelers are going to need Robinson to grow as a player, especially in his zone coverage before he can be a major part of their linebacker rotation. He’s already shown the tools to be a great run defender, if he can learn to be a smart coverage linebacker like Vince Williams did, he’ll be a starter on this defense.