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Steelers Film Room: Lapses in coverage are the only thing keeping this defense from being truly elite

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Pittsburgh’s defense was able to stop the run and make the Chiefs one-dimensional early. Coverage lapses were bad, but not bad enough to stop this defense.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers’ defense, after getting absolutely bludgeoned by the Jaguars’ run game in the fourth quarter in Week 5, was having none of that in Kansas City.

Facing a team missing two of its starters along the offensive line, which included Mitch Morse and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif meant the Steelers would be seeing Cam Erving and Zach Fulton at guard and center respectively for the Chiefs.

Credit the Steelers’ defensive line, but I’m just putting this into perspective a bit, because the Chiefs had been a team that was flat out dominant when it came to imposing their will on opposing defenses on the ground.

Pittsburgh put their run game to bed early on.

Tuitt is able to shed the block early and he’s able to hold up Hunt. Hunt has very good balance, though, and he’s able to keep going. Watt was the unblocked defender and he whiffed on the play as well, but Dupree was able to take him down for no gain.

Pittsburgh will need to clean up its tackling no doubt, but this type of instant penetration became a theme throughout this game.

Just look at Hargrave here for a second. That’s almost five yards that center Zach Fulton was pushed back, and 6-2 vs. 6-5 is a matchup Hargrave will feast on any day because of his leverage advantage.

Stephon Tuitt also takes on both the tackle and guard on this play, but he still was able to set a new line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Vince Williams does a terrific job of flowing towards the play and getting off the block of the guard to make the tackle.

The Steelers controlled time of possession and that no doubt played a huge role in the reduced run game by the Chiefs. But give this line credit—they set the tone and didn’t allow KC to get anything going on the ground.

As for the pass rush, this unit had some unlikely help in this game.

Charcandrick West came out of the game about midway through, and this left Kareem Hunt to do the dirty work on third down. Vince Williams absolutely feasted against the rookie. On both plays, he just blew straight through Hunt and got to Smith. This looks like the Steelers were in training camp and they were in backs-on-backers.

Give Keith Butler a ton of credit too. He found a way to scheme it up so he could get this matchup.

As for the secondary, Artie Burns was playing confidently early on and breaking on passes.

The receiver is running a 10-yard out. Burns is playing off coverage in what looks to be cover-1 man to man (correct me if I’m wrong). The Steelers bring a blitz off of the right side, but still rush four. Smith is immediately under duress but he seems to throw this ball well before the WR breaks off his route.

Combine the bad timing, a terrific break on the ball, along with a great blitz and the result is a pass breakup and an upcoming field goal.

Joe Haden also had some good breaks on the ball, and this one in particular was just a stellar play.

I’m almost positive the Steelers are playing quarters coverage here because Davis seems to man-up the slot receiver who’s going vertical, which is what the Strong Safety is supposed to do in quarters coverage unless the receiver goes into the flat.

Anyway, Haden is carrying the wide receiver vertical but he sees Smith release the ball to what looks like a wide open Travis Kelce. Haden breaks on the ball and it falls incomplete, granted that it’s a really high throw from Smith.

The play of the day in the secondary though was made by Sean Davis.

This play was reminiscent of that clutch play Davis made on the two-point conversion in the AFC divisional round last season.

I have to give a ton of credit, though, to Alex Smith because this was a perfectly placed pass where only his guy could get it. Davis fought extremely hard through the catch point to break it up. An absolutely critical play and a big reason why the Steelers won this game.

I won’t lie, though, despite the secondary playing quite well throughout most of this game, Artie Burns had two notable breakdowns in coverage that almost cost them.

First, I couldn’t figure out what coverage they were in, but I know Burns is responsible for this breakdown.

You can see he’s signaling Davis that he’s handing off Robinson to him inside. Burns is now responsible for De’Anthony Thomas. The only explanation I have for what caused this TD is that Burns had his eyes in the backfield too long and lost sight of the receiver. But that absolutely cannot happen under any circumstance. Yes, the tackling was bad on this play, but there’s no reason the play should ever have happened.

This next lapse I just have no words for.

What the heck happened here? Your guess is as good as mine. Burns is clearly communicating with Mitchell before the play, so my guess is that they clearly were not on the same page here.

What’s baffling, though, is that Burns is breaking inside even though there’s clearly a WR on his side of the field. The Steelers blitzed on this play and, judging from Joe Haden’s leverage on the other side, the CBs look to be in man-coverage. If it weren’t for the blitz that caused Smith to throw it falling away, that’s a TD every single time.

For the record, Artie Burns has looked terrific at points this season but he’s still having lapses in coverage which seem to occur towards the second half. I like the direction he’s heading, but these mistakes must be cleaned up.

Finally, the play of the game on defense was made by the godfather of this defense.

You can see James Harrison angle himself a little more inside and he’s able to use his signature leverage and bend to get around the edge. Give Cam Heyward credit too. Alex Smith had no pocket to step into and there was no escaping that sack.

Overall, I’m very pleased with this defense but some of the coverage lapses were a bit troubling. They definitely need to get this cleaned up moving forward, but there was a lot to build on from this week. A great pass rush and terrific run defense were the catalysts in this huge win.

Up next—Cincinnati!