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Attempting to wrap our heads around the Steelers defensive coverages vs. the Lions in Week 8

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The Steelers defense was torched by Matthew Stafford in Week 8, and we take a look to see if the coverages used had anything to do with it.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense entered Week 8 with the top ranked pass defense in the NFL. Say what you want about the ranking, but it was a fact before facing Matthew Stafford and the Lions on Sunday Night Football.

Fans of the black-and-gold know what happened in that game, to the tune of over 400-yard passing by Stafford, but what went wrong? Many are pointing directly at Keith Butler’s coverage schemes, primarily zone based defense, as the reason why the Steelers pass defense was picked apart. With that said, I put my best man, the Stat Geek 58Steel, on it to try and figure you just what went wrong.

Were the coverage calls even to blame?

This is what he came up with...


I almost scrapped doing this several times. I am a novice at identifying coverages. I attempted to simplify as much as possible, while still being able to garner some useful information from the data.

So, Stafford attempted 45 passes while being sacked 2 times. He also scrambled from the pocket one time. That would add up to 48 pass plays.

I'm eliminating the "shuttle pass" in the 2nd quarter (3:39), which amounted to a run play. Also not including a quick pass in the flat in the 2nd quarter (12:44). Difficult to ascertain any type of coverage on these.

Also eliminating 3 passes from inside the Steelers 5 yard line. 2 came from their 1 yard line on the goal line stand near the end of the 3rd quarter. The 3rd came from their 4 yard line on the goal line stand at the beginning of the 4th quarter. In all 3 cases, the Steelers played tight, "pattern match," bracket type coverage. Close man coverage on some receivers, but not quite. Anyway, coverage in such tight spaces is quite different from that in the "open field." Different enough that I don't want to include it in these numbers.

So we're looking at 43 pass plays. I broke the coverages run into the following categories:

Cover 2/3: a "spot drop" zone where defenders generally face the QB and drop to a specified area

Cover 6: a combination of Cover 2 to one side and Cover 4 (Quarters) to the other side. Too much to get into here. Quarters is a type of "pattern match" coverage where defenders may match up in man coverage based on the routes the receivers run

Zone Blitz with Pattern Match: this involved a pass rusher other than the typical (DL or OLB)) with the defenders matching up based on their "rules" for that call

Pattern Match: any coverage that calls for pattern matching (Quarters, 2 Read). Again, too much to explain here, any "zone" coverage that is not strictly a "spot drop" zone. I included here those pattern match coverages that did not involve a zone blitz.

Cover 1: man-to-man coverage with 1 deep safety

2 Man: man-to-man coverage with 2 deep safeties

Other: Lol. I could have put a few in here, with my limited knowledge on coverages. Fortunately, I'm only including one play here. The Steelers ran man coverage with Haden (safety help to his side), with zone t the other side. Wasn't sure where else to include this one. And it's possible there may have been others like it.

Okay, with all those caveats, here are the numbers I came up with:

Cover 2/3: 14 pass attempts, 12 completions, 157 yards, 11.21 YPA

Cover 6: 3 attempts, 2 completions, 50 yards, 16.67 YPA

Zone Blitz: 11 attempts, 5 completions, 62 yards, 5.63 YPA

Pattern Match: 5 attempts, 2 completions, 11 yards, 2.2 YPA, 1 sack

Cover 1: 2 attempts, 1 completion, 43 yards, 21.5 YPA

2 Man: 5 attempts, 3 completions, 81 yards, 16.2 YPA, 1 QB scramble for 11 yards

Other: 1 attempt, 0 completions

Overall, the Steelers did use some form of zone coverage on 35 of 43 pass plays (81%). According to Ray Fittipaldo's article, PFF has the Steelers playing zone 85-90% of the time this season. The usage in the Lions game seems to be right in line with that.

On the surface, the spot drop zones (Cover 2/3) look to have been largely ineffective. The completion % was 85%. One of the philosophies of zone coverage is to not give up big plays, even if you allow completions. Let's look at the attempts vs Cover2/3:

1st half-4 yards, 6 yards, 4 yards, 8 yards, inc, 25 yards, 18 yards, 11 yards

2nd half-18 yards, 12 yards, 8 yards, 9 yards, 34 yards, inc

While the zone seemed to be limiting the yardage gained early on, Stafford found his groove against it for some big gains. We can see the Steelers used Cover2/3 on 8 plays in the 1st half. This was out of 24 pass plays (33%). The second half saw 6 uses. This was out of 19 pass plays (31.5%). So about the same usage.

All of the 2 Man coverages came in the 2nd half. Looking at each more closely, we see some of the downfalls to using man coverage:

The first use of 2 Man was an incompletion on 3rd and 6. The next came on 3rd down and saw Stafford scramble for 11 yards. With all the defenders following their receiver, no one had their eyes on Stafford as he escaped the pocket(danger of man coverage vs mobile QB's).

The 3rd play had RB Theo Riddick beat Shazier out of the backfield. Again, with the other defenders following their receivers, the catch and run turned into a 23 yard gain.

The 4th time was disastrous, due to what I can only see as a coverage bust. Vince Williams inexplicably came off TE Eric Ebron, leaving him wide open. 44 yard gain.

5th time was on the 1st play of the Lions last drive. The wrinkle this time was dropping T.J. Watt to the middle of the field. He functions there as a "rat in the hole" to take away any crossing patterns. You may recall Watt tipping the Stafford pass here, coming oh so close to an interception.

The 6th, and last time, was 2 plays later, on 3rd down. Watt again dropped. Stafford displayed high level QB play here. As Ebron came open across the middle, Stafford still had to get the ball past Watt. Stafford looked to his right, turned slightly that way, and Watt moved in that direction. Stafford then threw across his body to hit Ebron in stride for 14 yards. Just have to tip your cap to a great QB there.


The pattern match and zone blitz seem to be more effective. Down, distance, field position, etc., all factor in to that. So it's not as easy as pointing to these numbers and saying one coverage is "better" than others. I did want to do this charting, however, to at least get a flavor of what the Steelers ran vs the Lions. I hope it was informative.