Anyone who watched the Steelers’ nearly miraculous, come-from-behind victory over the Baltimore Ravens Sunday night could tell you that the Pittsburgh run-defense was nearly non-existent. This was partly expected due to the loss of Ryan Shazier to a season-ending back injury. Additionally, tackling has been a problem for several weeks. And finally, the loss of cornerback Joe Haden to a broken fibula against the Indianapolis Colts has hurt pass coverage, which has required the Steelers to use strong safety Sean Davis more in coverage, and less in the box.
However, there were a number of plays on Sunday night that defied even those causes for their failures. Some of it was new people in new positions: Arthur Moats has moved to inside linebacker, and the team signed Sean Spence, who played with the team from 2013 to 2015, to replace Shazier.
But the one cause that’s inexcusable is how poorly outside linebacker Bud Dupree is doing in his attempts to set the play-side edge. What follows is merely one example of a recurring issue for Dupree.
Baltimore lines up in 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end). Tight end Maxx Williams is lined up to the outside shoulder of the right tackle, with receiver Jeremy Maclin split wide to the right. Receiver Mike Wallace is wide to the left, while slot receiver Michael Campanaro is in motion from left to right. Running back Alex Collins is lined up next to Joe Flacco, who is in shotgun.
Defensively, the Steelers are using Nickel personnel, with defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward with a hand on the ground. Dupree is in his usual spot to the defensive left, and is joined by fellow outside linebacker T.J. Watt on the right. Inside linebacker Vince Williams is alongside Moats. The defensive backs are cornerbacks Artie Burns, Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton, while Mike Mitchell and Davis are in at safety. Both safeties are playing well off the ball, while Hilton is playing at the line of scrimmage. The pre-snap looks can be seen below:
2nd Quarter, 2:00 remaining, 1st & 10
Off the snap, Dupree either fails to read the run, or simply is going out of his way to avoid engaging a blocker. Dupree’s competence in stacking and shedding blockers has always been a sore spot with me, and it appears he tries to use athleticism and quickness to get around blockers rather than going through them. That’s okay if you are still able to attack, but his strategy here appears to be to disengage and wait for the play to develop.
That’s not what 3-4 outside linebackers are supposed to do when defending the run. Dupree’s job here is to become an immovable object at the end of the line on the offensive right, and to use leverage to drive either the right tackle or, in this case, the tight end into the offensive backfield. The goal is to force the run inside to an inside linebacker or, failing that, to at least make the runner retreat a yard or two while bouncing outside, where a defensive back can make a play. If he’s able to shed his blocker as the runner comes by, he can try to make the tackle, but his number one job here is to be a significant obstacle for the runner.
Dupree does neither. In fact, the only thing he could have possibly done in his position is to wait for Campanaro, who may have been a decoy on this play. The blocking could have been for a wide receiver screen. I’d be more inclined to make that assumption if Dupree hadn’t done exactly the same thing several other times throughout the game, and with largely the same end result each time.
What ends up happening is that the tight end gets a free release, and gets to the second level. Williams has gone outside, presumably to help force the runner to make a decision, which should have allowed Moats to make the play. Instead, the tight end is unblocked and finds Moats, who was waiting in the hole where the play should have gone. But, because Dupree took himself out of the play from the start, it left an enormous hole in the defense and allowed Collins to abandon his first move and bounce outside. After some nice footwork to juke both Sutton and Davis, Collins was on his way to the end zone, tightening the score to 17-14 just after the two-minute warning in the first half.
This is not a sustainable condition for Dupree. While he’s been decent in pass coverage, he has struggled mightily at his other primary duties throughout most of 2017. With Shazier out for the year (at least), Dupree’s shortcomings are going to be magnified. The margin for error in the Steelers’ run defense has been reduced to almost zero, and if they want to get back to the Super Bowl this season, something is going to have to be done. That might be as simple as benching Dupree if he can’t figure out how to handle the most fundamental skills required of a 3-4 outside linebacker.