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Steelers’ defense creating a “storm” for opposing offenses

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Steelers’ DC Keith Butler retained some of Dick Lebeau’s playbook. We take a look at a Lebeau zone-blitz call, with a new wrinkle applied by Butler.

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

Editor’s Note: I began working on this several weeks ago after the Chiefs game. Other responsibilities in life prevented me from finishing it then. With the Steelers in a bye-week, it seems like a good time to look at a staple play in Keith Butler’s defense.

Football talk.

X’s and O’s.

That’s how this began. I enjoy “chalk talk” with the guys. I’m very much a novice, but always looking to learn. The Film Room contributors (Mike Frazer, Nicholas Martin, and myself) were discussing a play in a chat room. Specifically, we were chatting about the “Burns break” play from Nick’s Film Room:

We were attempting to pin down what type of coverage the Steelers used on that third-down play. The Steelers sent an overload blitz from their left side. The more I looked at it, the more I was convinced I had seen that play before. An internet search confirmed my belief. Alex Kozora writes for Steelers Depot. He handles most of their schematic topics. Alex does an excellent job of breaking down and explaining schemes and play calls. Alex wrote an article two years ago, detailing a Ross Cockrell interception vs. the Ravens: You can see his article HERE

In it, Alex showed a schematic diagram of a play from Dick LeBeau’s playbook. He also included the “rules” for “Strong Storm 2 Z.” I believe this was the same play call (with a new twist) the Steelers used vs. the Chiefs. I spoke with Alex about using the diagrams for this article and I owe him thanks for passing on knowledge and allowing me to do the same. With that, let’s get to it. We’ll analyze the play in the following manner:

  • Look at Steelers’ pre-snap alignment and its significance
  • Decipher the position designations of Lebeau’s play diagram
  • Reconcile the position designations to the Steelers players on the Chiefs play
  • Discuss the rules/assignments, as defined in Lebeau’s playbook
  • Identify the Steelers players’ execution of their assignments
  • Discuss the philosophy of the play call and its “soundness”

We’ll start with a quick look at the Steelers initial pre-snap alignment:

With Mike Mitchell in the middle of the field, the Steelers want to give Alex Smith the impression they are in either a Cover 1 (man) or Cover 3 (zone) call. In both of those defenses, the CB’s would be running with the outside receivers on any vertical route. This was instrumental on Cockrell’s interception. Not so much on this play. Disguise is still an important part of a defense, as you don’t know exactly which play the offense has called and how it might influence the QB’s decision(s).

Okay, let’s look at how each defensive player is designated per Lebeau’s diagram below:

An important note here is the diagram lists the players in a base defense. The Steelers were in their dime package on this play vs. the Chiefs. Also, the strength of the offense’s formation is flipped. The Steelers blitzed from the defense’s left side vs the Chiefs. Taking those factors into consideration, let’s identify the Steelers’ defenders as they aligned seconds before the ball was snapped:

Mike Hilton, as the NB (nickelback), takes the place of the S (Sam LB) in the diagram. Will Gay, as the dimebacker, takes the place of the M (Mac LB). The positioning of the Steelers’ defenders is nearly identical to that of the diagram. The only exception seems to be Gay. He’s notably deeper than the M shown in the diagram. Mitchell, as the FS, has begun to move towards his deep half responsibility, after attempting to hold disguise as long as possible. Can you see how the Steelers match up as compared to the diagram?

I’ve identified the Chiefs’ receivers here. They are typically numbered outside-in, toward the center, from each side. This will be helpful as we look at each player’s assignment below:

The first line says, “Vs any Width by #2 Outside of the “D Gap” Weak Check Z. Since the Weak side is the offense’s left, and the No. 2 receiver is not outside the “D Gap,” this rule does not apply. Below is a snapshot seconds after the snap. I believe this makes it easier to match each player with his assignment on this play:

  • The strength is identified to the defense’s left
  • Instead of “jetting to the Weak A-Gap,” Heyward drops and runs with the RB (#2). This is an apparent wrinkle to the call by Butler. The premise of the ball having to come out quickly makes Heyward covering the RB a feasible assignment. Also, Heyward only has to guard against any inside routes. The release to the flat by Watt (EL) protects against an outside release by the RB.
  • The T (Tuitt) jets outside to contain
  • Sam (Hilton) and E (Dupree) rush in their assigned lanes. As we will see, “vs Slots, walk off and disguise,” is what Hilton did, aligning over the No. 3 receiver initially
  • Elephant (Watt) play curl/flat
  • The Buck (Shazier) picks up No. 2 strong for any hook route. He will also carry him on any vertical (vertical hook). Shazier maintains inside position. If No. 2 breaks outside, the strong corner will jump that route (that’s what happened on Cockrell’s interception). The SC is reading the release of No. 2.
  • The Mac (Gay) picks up No. 3 strong on the hook route. This is where Gay’s pre-snap positioning seems “off.” If Alex Smith sees Tyreek Hill early, there’s a good chance for a completion. Luckily, Smith did not.
  • The Free Safety (Mitchell) rotates to the deep half of the strong side
  • Strong Safety (Davis) aligns to the strong side and blitzes outside
  • The Strong Corner (Haden) squats, breaking on any short route. If #1 releases vertical, SC will let him go to the FS.
  • The Weak Corner (Artie) has Inside Man coverage on #1 weak. This is probably the toughest assignment on this call. Artie has to protect against any inside route, as he has no help to that side. The ball should be coming out quickly, so that aids in his anticipation of the receiver’s break. Still, Artie does a good job of breaking on the out route to break up the pass.

Let’s watch the whole play develop:

The entire scheme is based on unblocked pressure forcing a quick throw. It succeeds in doing that. The coverage is sound vs. the routes. Taking a look at each receiver as a viable option:

  • No. 1 strong: far sideline throw with a defender coming at Smith. No option
  • No. 2 strong, post/deep cross: not into his break at time of throw. No option
  • No. 3 strong, hook: defender 7 yards off. Viable option
  • No. 1 Weak, out: defender 5 yards off, playing inside technique. Viable option
  • No. 2 Weak, seam: defender trailing, Smith falling back on throw. ??? option

Keith Butler dialed up a zone blitz that matched what the Chiefs were running on 3rd-and-6. The Steelers players executed it well.

With the departure of Dick Lebeau in 2015, there was speculation that Mike Tomlin might have more influence on the Steelers’ defense. Tomlin’s background is in Cover-2 schemes. While the team has incorporated some of that into their scheme, we see here that the zone blitz is still an integral part of the defense. I’d hesitate to define the Steelers’ defense as leaning toward any particular scheme. They truly are a hybrid.

I hope you enjoyed breaking down “Strong Storm 2 Z” as much as I did. I have fun attempting to identify things like this as I watch the games. It can be tricky in real time, particularly watching the broadcast view. I invite anyone to call out when “Storm” is run again. Send it in and I’ll check it out. If you’re correct, I’ll see if Jeff will provide a free subscription to BTSC for you :)

(Since it took me some time to finish this piece, I came across another occurrence of “Storm” in the Lions game. I included it here. A pre-snap look:)

And the play:

I haven’t labelled the defenders. I left that for you to have some fun.