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Steelers Film Room: Defensive adjustments confuse the Bengals

Steelers plugged injury holes in the middle of the defense in a variety of ways in Week 16.

NFL: DEC 23 Bengals at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

An unfortunate series of injuries to the inside linebacker and safety positions has left the Steelers seemingly using a new defensive player every quarter lately. The film from the 34-11 win over the Cincinnati Bengals shows the Steelers borrowing often from their strength at the outside linebacker position to help cover this area of weakness over the defensive middle. Here, we’ll break down how they managed to do it

The Bengals would call 46 pass plays in the game (42 passes, 3 sacks, one play nullified by a holding penalty) and the Steelers dropped at least one edge rusher into pass coverage on 16 of those plays. On one play, they dropped two edge rushers into coverage. To make things even more unpredictable for the Bengals offense, the edge drops came from all four outside linebackers — six from Alex Highsmith, six from T.J. Watt, three from Nick Herbig, and two from Markus Golden. Let’s have a look at a few.

Our first clip is a second-and-9 play from the first quarter when the Bengals will shift to an empty backfield and Highsmith will pull back to cover the short middle of the field.

The Bengals send everyone out for a pass, leaving no help in pass protection. With no help from the offensive line, the pass will have to be a quick one to avoid taking a sack and only one route is deeper than five yards. If Highsmith isn’t dropping back in response to the empty backfield look, there would be an easy completion with yards-after-the-catch potential to the tight end who stops on the hash marks at the 30. Quarterback Jake Browning, instead, opts to throw to a wide receiver being covered by Mark Robinson, who brings him down immediately for a short gain.

Now for a look from the end zone camera, we can see Highsmith at the right of the screen, bluffing as if he is still rushing the quarterback before settling back at the 30.

Highsmith’s bluff forces the Bengals left guard to look outside instead of inside, eliminating any opportunity for the left guard to help the center. Rookie DT Keannu Benton wins his one-on-one with the center and forces a quick throw before Browning can find the lone deep route developing over the middle.

Three plays after Highsmith took care of the short middle, Watt drops in to cover the short right on a second-and-6. No route comes his way, so he drifts deeper with his eyes on the quarterback. The four-man rush gets the job done as Isaiahh Loudermilk stuns the left guard and gets a hit on Browning as he throws. The ball flutters but is caught by Andrei Iosivas as he gets blasted by Elandon Roberts.

Four plays later on a second-and-9 at the 16, Watt and Highsmith both drop into coverage as Elandon Roberts rushes the passer from the inside linebacker position. At the top of the defensive front, Watt drops back along the hash marks. From the bottom, Highsmith will keep his eyes on Browning while he widens toward the sideline to cover the running back. He is put into conflict as a crossing Iosivas is headed for his zone as the running back is pulling him deeper. Highsmith sees the pass headed inside and peels off of the running back to tattoo the crossing wide receiver and prevent the completion.

With 12 minutes left in the game and the Steelers ahead by 20, Highsmith will drop down the hash marks to cover the deep middle on this second-and-19. With eyes again on the quarterback, he is able to make a play on the ball, and he makes the interception.

This final clip I did not include in my count of outside linebacker dropbacks, even though Nick Herbig retreats to cover the short left. I didn’t include it in the count as Herbig is lined up as more of an inside linebacker on this play, faking a middle blitz before dropping back. It is such an odd defensive personnel grouping utilizing extreme position versatility that I had to watch it several times just to figure out who was even on the field.

I have to think the Bengal coaches and their inexperienced quarterback had to scratch their heads a bit at this as well. The Steelers rush three on this play: Watt, Highsmith, and Montrvavius Adams—the only defensive lineman on the field. Herbig is a third outside backer playing inside, along with Myles Jack.

Three cornerbacks (Levi Wallace, Joey Porter Jr, and Chandon Sullivan) will join three safeties (Patrick Peterson, Miles Killebrew, and Eric Rowe). It’s your standard 1 DL, 3 OLB, 1 ILB, 3 CB, 3 S package. It forces a third-and-10 check-down that is swallowed up by Sullivan and Killebrew. An incompletion on the following fourth down play would hammer the first nail flush into the Cincinnati coffin.

It was truly revealing watching the coach’s film from this game to see how creative the Steelers were in covering for their personnel weaknesses and confusing the Bengal offense at the same time. It was also a great reminder to not get too down on the highly compensated Steeler edge rushers when they don’t destroy a game via sacks.

There are so many other ways that they get deployed throughout a game that their sack opportunities are sometimes limited. In this particular game, the Steelers sent one or fewer edge rushers on a third of the pass plays. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the need for middle-of-the-field help led to the creativity and frequency of using outside linebackers to deviate from their normal assignments.