Through the first five weeks of the 2017 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers resembled, at times, a team playing late in its first pre-season game.
Too much hyperbole, perhaps. But crisp execution wasn’t often associated with the Steelers in September, on either side of the ball.
The defense has been, for the most part, well ahead of the offense. But they’ve still had their struggles, and facing a slate of bottom-tier quarterbacks was probably their saving grace.
Over the last few weeks, though, the defense has finally gotten their feet completely under themselves, and they’ve begun looking like a championship-caliber unit. That was evident throughout their victory over the then-undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, and even more so against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cincinnati managed two long gains on runs in the first half, each springing free the offense on a scoring drive. Aside from those two plays, however, the Pittsburgh defense was devilishly good throughout the entire game, ultimately holding the Bengals to only 179 total yards — and only 19 net yards during the final 37 minutes. And they did it because of elite execution.
3rd Quarter, 3:17 Remaining, 2nd & 4, CIN 44
This play call was as simple as they come, with four vertical routes. There was also a check-down available, but it was of no consequence to the outcome of the play.
This play was going to receiver A.J. Green from the start. He’s one of the most savvy veterans in the NFL today and he’ll fight for any ball thrown his way.
What’s really interesting is the Steelers seemed to be anticipating exactly this play, and had gone with a rare Cover-1 call. Artie Burns is giving a huge cushion at the bottom of the screen, while Mike Hilton is next to him in the slot. On the other side of the field, safety Sean Davis is manned up on the tight end, and Joe Haden — also one of the most savvy veterans in the league — is playing tight on Green at the top of the screen.
What Haden does is to perfectly execute deep man coverage on one of the hardest-to-defend receivers in the league today. Just before the snap, Haden adjusts his feet, very subtly shifting to Green’s inside shoulder. It’s possible Green intended to go to the outside all along, but Haden ends up with inside leverage regardless. He flips his hips effortlessly and stays with Green, stride for stride.
But here’s the key: without ever so much as touching Green, he directed him closer and closer to the sideline, giving the big receiver little room for error, and no real chance of coming down with the ball in bounds. And Haden times his only contact on the play perfectly, getting into Green while he was in the air to keep him from coming down in the field of play. Green ended up catching the ball and maintaining possession, but he never got a single foot in.
This is how you play successful man coverage in the NFL against an All-Pro receiver.
4th Quarter, 10:16 Remaining, 3rd & 21, CIN 44
Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu was an important off-season acquisition for the Steelers. He’s an aggressive defensive lineman with a good first step. That aggression and quickness was the key to this play.
This is a simple concept: just a delayed stunt between the defensive tackle and the outside linebacker, out of a 2-3-6 Dime set. At the snap, both Alualu and linebacker Bud Dupree drive straight ahead, with Alualu moving slightly to his own left. This causes the right guard to rotate his hips towards Alualu in the B-gap.
As Alualu makes contact and completely turns the guard sideways, Dupree makes a quick change of direction, looping over the top of Alualu, towards the wide-open A-gap. He gets there untouched, as Alualu stayed engaged with the right guard long enough to prevent him from having any shot at getting a block on Dupree.
As Dupree gets through the gap, Dalton sees him and scrambles, but the only direction he can go is right into the arc on which Dupree is running. It’s an easy sack at that point.
4th Quarter, 4:40 remaining, 2nd & 11, CIN 24
A lot happens in the trenches. Holding occurs on just about every play, and this one is no exception. What’s interesting, though, is that it’s quite hard to tell who is holding, the offense or the defense. Maybe it’s both. Regardless, the result is a screen that was doomed from the start.
At the snap, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward quickly angles inside, crossing the left guard’s face and getting immediately to the center. The guard is then left to block linebacker Vince Williams. He releases Williams quickly to get outside to form the blocking wall for an attempted screen to Giovani Bernard.
Meanwhile, the center is trying to do the same thing, but Heyward’s aggressive move catches him off-guard. It’s at this point that it’s hard to tell what’s going on: does Heyward have a fistful of the center’s jersey? Is the guard hooking Heyward’s arm? Is it a little of both? Whatever the case, it prevents the center from getting outside to help block. This is compounded by Williams, who’s now also engaging with the center.
Dalton completes the pass to Bernard, but it quickly becomes a two-on-one situation, as safety Sean Davis is tracking with Bernard towards the sideline. The left guard is out in front, closing on Davis to block him.
Unfortunately for Bernard, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier is angling towards him, and he’s coming in hot behind the blocking “wall”. Because the defenders outnumbered the blockers, there was little chance this play would succeed, and it didn’t, losing one yard.
The Steelers will be facing the Detroit Lions in Week 8. While the Lions are dealing with a number of injuries, quarterback Matthew Stafford and his offense have the potential top get hot at any time. But, with the Steelers playing their most disciplined defense since the glory days of 2005 to 2010, there’s little reason to think they can’t continue to be a dominant force for the foreseeable future.