clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Breaking down the primary coverages used by the Steelers, Part 2

Taking a deeper dive into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive coverages they deploy on a regular basis.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Today, we continue with the discussion from Tuesday about the coverages the Steelers’ typically use. Part One dealt with base coverages, specifically Cover-1, 2 and 3. This article delves into some of the coverages the Steelers play off of their base looks, and how they provide disguise.


How does it work?

In Tampa-2, the defense aligns in a Cover-2 shell. But at the snap, one of the inside linebackers drops to the deep middle. This puts four defenders across the underneath zones instead of five, and allows the safeties to play wider. With a four-under, three-deep look, Tampa-2 plays more like Cover-3, with an added element of disguise.

A traditional Tampa-2 look, with the Mike backer sinking to the deep middle third of the field.

Why do the Steelers like it?

Probably because it’s a Mike Tomlin favorite. Tomlin studied the scheme under its architects — Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin — when he was defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay from 2001-2005. He brought it with him to Pittsburgh, and it’s been in the Steelers playbook ever since.

Tomlin aside, the Steelers use Tampa because it’s a great way to show Cover-2 before rotating to something else. The pre-snap picture in Tampa looks just like Cover-2, and quarterbacks may be tempted to predetermine that they can throw between the safeties or into the window along the sideline between the near safety and corner. But, as we shall see, by rotating post-snap, the defense takes those throws away.

The Film

In the image below, we see a six-man box with two deep safeties. You can’t see the other players in this alignment, but there are two pressed corners and a nickel walked out on the slot to Cincinnati’s right. In short, it’s a traditional five-under, two-deep look:

Cincinnati runs a Smash concept, which is a Cover-2 beater. On Smash, an outside receiver holds the corner with a hitch or quick-breaking route while the inside receiver breaks towards the end zone pylon, where the quarterback tries to locate him in the hole between the corner and the safety:

This is the version of Smash the Bengals ran, with Burrow targeting the corner route from the slot receiver.

The problem for Cincinnati here is this is not Cover-2. Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is aligned at safety behind the CBS logo in the top right of the frame, widens and gets depth at the snap. This takes away the slot receiver’s path to the pylon. The slot adjusts by breaking off his route and squaring it towards the sideline. But Fitzpatrick has already diagnosed the concept and anticipated the adjustment. He drives on the throw, steps in front of the receiver and snares the interception:

Notice linebacker Myles Jack running up the right hash towards the middle of the field. That’s how Tampa-2 accommodates the wide drop of the safeties. Jack protects against throws to the deep middle, allowing the safeties to widen and protect the sideline. Burrow expects Fitzpatrick to get depth, not width, which is why he targets the corner route. Essentially, the Steelers trick Burrow into thinking the corner route will be open when it’s not.

Here’s another example, from last season’s Week 2 game against New England. Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is targeting the single receiver to his left on a vertical route out of a 3x1 set. The wide drop of Terrell Edmunds, who can be seen backpedaling towards the numbers to the top left of the frame below, takes that option away:

Jones has his eyes to the left, where Edmunds has taken away his deep option. Meanwhile, Spillane starts to run with Parker to Jones’s right.

Edmunds’s drop convinces Jones the Steelers are in Cover-2, so he comes back to the divide route from DeVante Parker (1), who is running up the right seam. Parker would be open if this really were two-high. But Robert Spillane is running down the hash with Parker. Jones appears to see Spillane at the last second and attempts to locate his throw over Parker’s back shoulder. This takes Parker off the hash, though, and towards Fitzpatrick, who swoops in to pick it off:

As we see, the Steelers employ Tampa-2 to show a quarterback one thing pre-snap only to take it away post-snap. It’s a nice way to protect one of their favorite coverages, and a useful way to keep offensive coordinators guessing.

“Bracket” Coverage

How does it work?

Bracket coverage — or what is sometimes called Cover-7 — is used when a defense wants to create a +1 advantage on one side of the football. Often, this is done to take away the opponent’s most dangerous receiver or their favorite passing concept. To do this, the defense can “bracket,” or essentially double cover, either a single player (two-against-one) or create a numbers advantage against a multiple receiver surface (three-against-two). The defense simply must decide where to create the advantage and assign the bracket there.

The bracket itself can take many forms. It can be a corner and a safety working in tandem to double-team a single receiver. It can be a nickel, corner and safety working a combo coverage on a slot receiver and a wide-out. However it’s done, the second-level defenders undercut quick-breaking routes while the safety protects over the top. Because the defense has a +1, the bracket makes it tough for an offense to get the football to one of its preferred routes or targets.

Why do the Steelers like it?

The Steelers have used it at times to take away some of the better receivers they see. They played bracket last season against the likes of Stefon Diggs, Ja’Marr Chase and Davante Adams. Because Pittsburgh lacks a true shutdown corner, bracket is a good way to provide help on some of the league’s elite pass catchers.

The Film

In Pittsburgh’s Week 1 win at Cincinnati, in which the Steelers’ defense frustrated Joe Burrow into seven sacks and five turnovers, they forced an interception in the 2nd quarter off of bracket coverage.

In the photo below, you can see how the pre-snap look resembled Cover-2:

At the snap, the Steelers went man on the tight end and split end to the 3x1 set at the top while bracketing the slot with their nickel defender (Cam Sutton) and strong-side backer (Devin Bush). On the backside, they worked a second bracket against JaMarr Chase with the corner (Ahkello Witherspoon) and safety (Fitzpatrick). You can see how Witherspoon dropped underneath Chase to take away the quick throw, while Fitzpatrick played him over the top:

Burrow actually made a good choice here. Once he saw Edmunds come down, he knew there would be no safety on the strong side. So he targeted Tyler Boyd, the slot receiver, who had inside leverage on Sutton and had gained separation from Bush. The window was tight, though, with Fitzpatrick coming back to the ball, and Burrow couldn’t lead Boyd the way he would have liked. This allowed Sutton to close, where he made an acrobatic play for the pick.

By playing bracket, the Steelers eliminated Chase as an option and forced Burrow to make a tough throw into a small window. They were also able to rotate to the coverage out of a pre-snap Cover-2 look, which provided disguise.


How does it work?

Cover-5 is a man-under, two-deep scheme that plays just as I’ve described. The five defenders who typically cover the underneath zones lock on to specific receivers instead, while the two safeties provide help over the top. Cover-5 is great against vertical routes because of the safety help, and it can make shorter routes difficult because man-defenders can play aggressively knowing they have help on the back end. It’s vulnerable to slants from quick receivers, and athletic quarterbacks can gash it with the run. Against a less mobile QB, though, it’s a great change-up.

Why do the Steelers like it?

It’s another good adjustment off of their base coverages. And, with two good back-end safeties in Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee, and a third safety who can play in the box in Edmunds, it fits their three-safety package well.

The Film

Here are the Steelers playing Cover-5 last season against New Orleans. This is a good look against Andy Dalton, who at age 35 is not much of a threat to run. The Steelers showed Dalton this pre-snap picture on a 3rd-and-5 snap in the 4th quarter:

It looks a lot like Cover-2. New Orleans is running a post-dig combo to the right of their formation, and Dalton, perhaps thinking two-high zone, expects the safety to that side (Kazee) to sink with the post, leaving him a window to throw the dig underneath it. In Cover-5, though, Levi Wallace runs with the dig, which closes the window. Dalton actually makes a good throw, and it hits his receiver in the hands. But he can’t hold it, and Kazee drives on the ball to make the interception:

The Steelers don’t play a ton of Cover-5, but in the right situation, it’s another nice way to protect their base Cover-2 scheme.


How does it work?

Robber is my favorite of all the coverages the Steelers run. It’s their true “mad scientist” coverage, where they can get as creative as they want moving guys from one pre-snap look to another.

Specifically, Robber involves dropping one of the safeties down, usually from a two-high look, into the hook-curl or MOF zone to “rob” an underneath route. The robber is looking to jump crossing or hitch routes where the quarterback does not anticipate a safety.

Why do the Steelers like it?

Most NFL teams play some version of Robber, with the use of a “rat” as a high-hole interrupter. The Steelers do this often with Fitzpatrick. But because they have one of the most versatile safety rooms in the league, they can evolve beyond the “rat” scheme. As last season progressed, they made increasing use of Kazee as the robber. This allowed them to play it without having to drop Fitzpatrick, which, as we’ll see below, was a good way to mess with a quarterback’s read progression.

The Film

Here’s a snap from the season finale against Cleveland. We’ll look at this play in two parts to examine how the Steelers disguised their robber.

First, watch the late rotation of the secondary. Pittsburgh is walked up fairly tightly, with 10 players within eight yards of the ball. Just before the snap, Wallace, the left corner, starts running towards the deep third. Fitzpatrick, who is walked down near the right B-gap, backs out as well. The Steelers are rotating to a Cover-3 look, with Fitzpatrick and Wallace the deep outside defenders and Edmunds, who is out of the frame, moving from the right hash to the deep middle:

This means Kazee, who is aligned on the left hash at the 42-yard line, does not bail. Instead, he sits in the hook-curl zone to rob anything in the middle. Because the snap is low, quarterback Deshaun Watson has to take his eyes off of the coverage to find the football. This appears to prevent him from seeing Pittsburgh’s rotation. When Watson looks up, the picture has changed and he doesn’t have time to re-process. He sees the slot to his right pop open on a quick in-cut, and he doesn’t expect Kazee to remain low. Watson pulls the trigger, and Kazee jumps the route for the pick:

Here’s a great look at the play from the end zone, with Kazee, to the bottom left of the frame, lying in wait:


In the past week, we’ve looked at seven different coverages the Steelers run, with a host of disguises from each. This is only a sampling of what they do. When you couple everything the Steelers throw at teams from a coverage standpoint with everything they do with their blitz and pass rush, it’s easy to see how they can make life hard on opposing quarterbacks.