Mike Tomlin’s career has been rich with success. Hailing from the Tony Dungy coaching tree he picked up a Super Bowl in 2003 where the defensive backs corps he coached recorded five interceptions returning three for touchdowns in a legendary performance.
He spring boarded his success in Tampa to a brief stint in Minnesota that led to the head coaching job in Pittsburgh. Needless to say, it’s gone well. A Super Bowl ring later, Tomlin has firmly established himself as one of the most consistent, winningest coaches in the modern NFL.
As someone known as a defensive mastermind, it must of been interesting for Tomlin to come into Pittsburgh with Dick LeBeau as the defensive coordinator. In retrospect, Tomlin made a wise decision to forgo imposing his will on the organization, and allowed the hall of famer to cultivate a series of incredible defenses that were integral in bringing success to Pittsburgh.
Flash forward to week two of the 2016 NFL season, and Tony Dungy himself comments on Sunday night football that the Steelers defensive is beginning to take on many of the characteristics of those early 2000’s Tampa teams.
Behind the Steel curtain set out to investigate these claims, and breakdown the Tomlin defense.
First, a common misconception is that the cover 2 does not scheme against the run.
It should be noted that a major part of defensive scheme design is personal decisions. The Colbert, Tomlin draft strategy over the past five years specifically the amount of capital spent on players like Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Ryan Shazier show a commitment to making this scheme work. On the aggregate, it appears to be working.
After a debacle in week three of 2016, including against the run, it should be noted that the defenses Tomlin’s been involved in building show a pattern of steady improvement, but are not without their rocky patches.
Now, we’ll look at some examples from the Steelers first two games. Here is a play vs. the Redskins where the defense shows a classic Cover 2:
The two safeties each cover half of the field deep. These deep safeties are where the name of the system is derived. The CB’s cover the flat to either side. If the receiver to their side runs deep, and there is no other receiver threatening the flat area, the CB will "sink." By sinking, they will continue to get depth downfield, while forcing the QB, to make any downfield throw to their side tougher for the QB.
The LB’s drop into the hook or curl zone. Since the Steelers are in nickel personnel, Sean Davis (covering the slot WR) takes the hook responsibility. The Buck LB (Timmons) is responsible for the "vertical hook" or seam in the middle of the field. Which side the Buck opens his hips to is determined by either the stacked side of the formation (more receivers) or which side has more space to cover.
Every coverage has weaknesses or holes. Let’s look at what those are in Cover 2:
You can see the biggest problem areas lie beyond the CB and in front of the safety to either side. Also, beyond the LB in the deep middle. There are ways to minimize these spaces, and we will analyze how the Steelers do that on this play vs. the Redskins:
Note how both CB’s play with outside leverage. They also jam the receiver. Both of these allow the safety time to get to that side should the receiver run a deep route.
Timmons (as the Buck) opens his hips quickly to get depth and protect against a throw to the deep middle.
As the play develops, the Steelers do a good job of taking away any intermediate-to-deep routes. Kirk Cousins opts for the underneath receiver:
As the ball is on its way to the receiver, we can see that seven defenders have their eyes in that direction. These defenders not only are in a position to make the tackle but facing the QB also allows them to react to tipped balls or any scramble attempt.
Let’s watch the play from beginning to end:
This moment came on 1st down and 15-yards to go. Obviously, an 11-yard gain is not ideal. However, it's useful to study this design as it serves to prevent big gains and to tackle the catch. In the case of this particular play, it was helpful as the receiver gained about 4-yards after the catch, tackled short of the 1st down marker.
Now we’ll look at a play vs. the Bengals. This one shows how the Cover 2 puts players in position to prevent intermediate-to-deep throws. The Steelers again are in a classic Cover 2 with their nickel personnel:
Notice Timmons opens his hips "to the field." There are two receivers to either side. The ball is placed at the right hashmark, making for more space to cover to the left. Therefore Timmons opens up that way.
Dalton, if he is expecting Cover 2, would anticipate Timmons to react that way. As he sees it, Dalton decides to hit Uzomah on the post, since Timmons had initially turned to the opposite side.
As noted in the GIF, the fact that Timmons still got to the proper depth on his drop forcing Dalton throw behind the receiver with the throw giving Mitchell the opportunity to make a play.
Not to be missed, however, is Gay at the top of the screen. He takes away the outside release of the receiver and jams him. Although it may appear slight, these two actions prevented the receiver from threatening Mitchell deep, allowing him to remain in position to make a play on the post route.
Excellent execution by several members of the defense combined to stop this look. Each player doing their job is what makes a unit sound.
Again, limiting/preventing chunks of yards are what the Cover 2 is designed to do. Although they gained yards underneath, frustration can build in the QB when they are continually forced to dump the ball off instead of throwing downfield. We see this as we take another look at Kirk Cousins in Week 1:
This is Cover 3 and Cousins should be able to read that easily. Mike Mitchell is positioned as the single high safety pre-snap and remains there once the play begins. The weaknesses in Cover 3 are to in the flat and the vertical seam. As we see to the top of the screen, either of these two routes had potential to be open. Perhaps Cousins had been frustrated by not connecting to his favorite target (Jordan Reed). Maybe he saw this as his chance to go downfield. At any rate, it was the last place Cousins should’ve gone with the ball. The frustration brought on by forcing underneath throws brought results even in a different coverage.
The transition from Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense to Tomlin's coverage schemes is almost complete. If the team could acquire a couple pass rushers to accompany Tuitt and Heyward, this defense could be a very tough unit to deal with.