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Steelers Film Room: Defensive faces in odd places

A variety of looks cause confusion for opponents

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the mini-bye due to a Thursday game last week, I had extra time to put together some more plays from the All-22 film. Consider it a free bonus if you enjoy these articles as much as I do. Let’s check out some different looks the Steeler defense has used recently.

Stopping the run before it starts

The Titans offense is centered around power runs between the tackles. Derrick Henry has built a Hall of Fame career out of punishing tacklers to the point that he eventually wears them down and breaks loose for a big gain with his exceptional speed. This season the Titans have started using Tyjae Spears in the same role to give Henry less of a workload. The first clip shows a defensive look that the Steelers used six times on Thursday including the very first play of the game. To prevent these runs from ever getting started by clogging the middle, the Steelers shift an outside linebacker from the edge to directly in front of the center. The Steelers used this look with Bud Dupree and TJ Watt against the Titans back in the 2020 game that is best remembered for linebacker Robert Spillane stoning Henry near the goal line. Watt and Alex Highsmith did it three times each on Thursday night. This clip, a first-and-10 from midway through the first quarter shows the look best with Highsmith shifting over center and Spears taking the handoff.

While this play resulted in Spears bouncing outside for an 8-yard run plus a face mask penalty on the tackle, the defensive look does its job in causing interior chaos. You can see Keeanu Benton is basically unblocked directly in the path of Spears. Benton’s blocker tripped over the left foot of the center, who very likely took a bad first step to keep Highsmith from penetrating the gap he was angling for between the center and left guard. Nick Herbig knifes through between the tackle and tight end with Patrick Peterson following. A little block to the inside on Peterson from the wide receiver seals a huge bounce-out opportunity for Spears who ends up in a footrace with Joey Porter Jr.

All but one of the six plays with this defensive look were first-and-10 plays. The results are a mix of good and bad, but never the big gainer up the middle that it was designed to prevent.

  • the first play of the game Henry gained 1 yard against the look.
  • a second-and-six play-action incomplete pass where Patrick Peterson was flagged for illegal contact
  • the Spears bounce-out 8-yard run shown here plus a face mask penalty
  • a 14-yard play-action pass to DeAndre Hopkins
  • a 4-yad Henry run
  • an incomplete play-action pass.

Highsmith in coverage, Heyward on the edge

Next up is another non-standard alignment for the Steeler defense. The Titans opened the third quarter with a 2-yard Henry run from a personnel grouping of two wide receivers, two tight ends, and Henry. For this second-and-eight play they lined up with the two tight ends and a wide receiver in a bunch formation to the quarterback’s left with Hopkins in the right slot and Henry split wide to the right at the top of the screen. I had to rewind the game to double-check, but there was no shift to this alignment nor a sprint to the line to try and cause communication issues for the Steelers. Presented with this, Highsmith lines up tight to the lead man of the bunch. At the snap, he is a slight obstacle for that lead tight end to get his route started. He then makes contact with the second tight end on his way to cover the wide receiver running to the bottom of the screen. Quarterback Will Levis never looks to the bunch side and throws a quick 3-yard pass to Hopkins who drops the ball as he anticipates a big hit from linebacker Kwon Alexander. Tennessee got one of the league’s premier pass rushers out in coverage and their best receiver on a linebacker but couldn’t make anything out of it.

When the Steelers started the play in their base defense but the offensive formation placed Highsmith out in coverage, we get Cam Heyward lined up as an edge rusher. There is a noticeable difference in the get-off of the bulky defensive tackle compared to a true edge player. It looks like Heyward is anticipating a quick throw to the bunch and is trying to stay disengaged from the blocker so that he can knock it down.

Goal line numbers game pays off

Next, we have a clip from the Jaguars game from Week 8. It’s the Damontae Kazee interception in the end zone. I watched this play dozens of times finding new things worth talking about. For context, it’s the second quarter with Jacksonville leading 6-0. The Jaguars just had a 13-yard Travis Etienne run set them up with this first-and-goal from the 6. The Jaguars put in a heavy run grouping and the Steelers counter with their goal line look. What initially caught my eye was TJ Watt in coverage on tight end Evan Engram. The best edge rusher in the NFL never attacks on this play. Instead, Watt checks Engram off the line as he and Highsmith drop into zone coverage at the goal line with the two inside linebackers. At the snap, at the bottom of the screen, Patrick Peterson is signaling to Kazee. As wide receiver Calvin Ridley breaks to the inside, Peterson raises his arm toward Kazee alerting him. Kazee picks up the coverage on Ridley and Peterson picks up the coverage on Engram, with front-side assistance from Highsmith, after the route passes through Watt and Cole Holcomb. Ridley breaks in front of Kazee, but Watt is now at the goal line along with Elandon Roberts, taking away throwing lanes to Ridley. Ridley will get past Kazee, but from the other side of the field Keanu Neal has been reading the quarterback’s eyes the entire play and drifts back to help out. The pass from Trevor Lawrence goes right into a crowd and, with Neal assisting in coverage, Kazee is free to break on the ball for an easy interception.

That felt like a lot of commentary on one play, but there’s more. I have to think that seeing Watt in coverage over the middle out of a six-man defensive front was not high on the list of things that the Jaguar coaches prepared Lawrence for when designing this play as, from the end zone view, we can see that the Jaguars kept seven blockers in on this play against only four Steeler pass rushers. Keanu Benton is still able to pressure Lawrence into a bad throw. No Steeler bit hard on the fake handoff to Etienne, and by the time he turns around as a check-down target, Lawrence is already in retreat from Benton. Essentially just two receivers get into their routes against seven zone defenders with only 16 yards of field to defend. Watching Lawrence on the play, he briefly looks in Engram’s direction, possibly to lure Holcomb that way and open up an easy throw to Ridley, but quickly comes off of that. With Watt slipping back into coverage, Holcomb doesn’t need to attack a quick throw to Engram and create space for a throw to Ridley. Lawrence follows Ridley the rest of the way. This play is a great example of how the pass-rushing duo of Watt and Highsmith can destroy a play when they don’t even rush the passer. Neither player gets anything on the stat sheet, but their reputation limited Jacksonville to only getting two targets on this play, and their ability to provide coverage helped buy time for Benton to force the bad throw.

This final clip isn’t defensive, but a look at rookie Broderick Jones. It took place in the fourth quarter with the Steelers trailing 16-13. It’s the first play of the game-winning 92-yard touchdown drive. From the top of the screen, we see Darnell Washington, Jones, and James Daniels. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons will be the blocking assignment for Jones. Daniels will briefly look to assist Jones before leaving him to block the linebacker. Simmons will stand Jones up and slide off of him to get one of his pink-wrapped arms around the right leg of Najee Harris. With his man on the ground, Jones is looking for more work. Harris gained seven yards on a first down from the 8. Every Steeler fan watching on TV was happy with the result. This play was a win.

Watching Jones after the play was over, it looks like a man who was upset with himself for letting his guy make the tackle. This tackle likely saved only about two more yards on the play as the entire Titan secondary would have been there for the tackle if Simmons hadn’t tripped Harris up. Jones doesn’t seem to care that the Steelers had a great gain when they needed it, or that there wasn’t much meat left on the bone with this play, or that as a rookie he’s not going to win every rep against a Pro Bowl player. He’s apparently angry at himself for not getting his job done even though it was a solid gain on the play. “Good enough” doesn’t appear to be in his vocabulary. If this reaction is born of a desire to be great, not just good, it assures me that Jones will do whatever work necessary to excel for the Steelers.

We’ve seen run looks featuring edge rushers lined up over center, Highsmith in coverage on a bunch formation, Heyward as a stand-up pass rusher, Watt dropping into coverage out of a six-man front, four pass rushers beating seven blockers, and Jones not accepting “good enough” on a play. What stands out to you on these plays?