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Steelers Film Room: Pittsburgh pass rush uses creativity to get back on track vs. the Chiefs

The Chiefs might be double checking their GPS after Sunday Night’s game, because they took an unexpected detour to “Blitzburgh.”

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

One. It’s the loneliest number. Any Steelers fan knew it was also the number of sacks the defense had through its first three games. One pitiful take down of the QB, and at the line of scrimmage, to boot. Tomlin/Butler’s philosophy of sitting back in zones and “getting pressure with 4” was reluctantly tolerated as the Steelers defeated the Redskins and the Bengals. After a dismantling by the Eagles, however, the fans patience wore out. There were calls for change, lead here at BTSC by our own steeler fever.

Change, they did. It can be difficult to discern what is technically labeled a “blitz.” Some may define it as “5 or more rushers.” I include 4 man rushes when a rusher other than the “expected” is sent. No matter what your definition is, the Steelers blitzed far more vs the Chiefs than they had in their first 3 games.

Consider that Butler had blitzed about 25% or less of the time before Sunday. Of the 54 pass plays vs the Chiefs, Butler sent 5 or more 17 times, or 31.5%. When counting 4 man “blitzes,” it was 24 times, or 44%.

Lets’s start by looking at one of the early blitzes that resulted in a big play for the Steelers defense. Safety Jordan Dangerfield is going to blitz from the slot, making for a 5 man rush. The defensive line (3 DL and 1 LB) are going to “scoop down” one gap to maintain a balanced rush. The LB’s and DB’s play a mixed zone coverage. Most, if not all of Butler’s blitzes bring “safe” pressure (zone coverage, not man). The scheme:

Here’s how it played out:

A couple things to note here. Javon Hargrave missed his assignment, rushing straight at the center. Fortunately, it didn’t matter. The pressure from Smith’s right side prevented him from making a relatively longer throw to that side. He instinctively opted to dump off to his RB, who Smith expected would be leaking out to the left flat. Cam Heyward saw/felt Ware trying to get into his pass pattern and did just enough to impede him, while not getting called for a penalty. Cam also had the awareness to look for the lob pass and get a hand on it.

Butler continued to bring pressure from different spots. I have no doubt that this led to some uncertainty for the Chiefs offensive line. We’ll look at a 4-man pressure that came late in the 3rd quarter and you’ll see what I mean. The rush scheme:

Again we see that the 2 DL and blitzing ILB (Fort) move a gap to their right. This maintains balanced rush lanes as Jarvis Jones drops into coverage. Here’s the play:

Note how the center’s (Mitch Morse) head appears to follow Timmons to his left. Butler had sent the ILB’s on numerous occasions during the game. Perhaps Morse was checking Timmons, expecting a blitz. Regardless, the center was late reacting to Hargrave to his right. Hargrave is his responsibility on this play because of the blitz by ILB Fort. Even though the Steelers only rushed 4, they got pressure. Whether it was caused by confusion on that particular play, or the cumulative effect of previous blitzes, Butler’s attacking scheme was working.

An increase in productivity is usually due to various factors, regardless of which area you are talking about. That was true for the pass rush on Sunday night. On this last GIF, mid way through the 4th quarter, the Steelers don’t blitz:

We see a fairly basic 4 man rush. There’s a stunt between Heyward and Harrison, but that’s not what caused the sack. Stephin Tuitt simply beat his man. Cam was there to clean it up.

Regarding the number of blitzes by the Steelers, they increased in the second half. Butler blitzed on 8 of 23 (34.8%) pass plays in the first half. He blitzed on 16 of 31 (51.6%) pass plays in the second half.

Following the Eagles loss, Mike Tomlin addressed the lack of pass rush as a combination of things. He said the coaches didn’t do a good enough job in putting the players in position to win, the players didn’t win one-on-one match ups, and they didn’t take advantage of playing with the lead in their first two games. The Steelers did all three vs the Chiefs-

  1. The blitzes put players in position to make a play
  2. The players won individual match ups
  3. The coaches called more blitzes with the big lead, and the players kept delivering

Although any game plan needs to be tailored a bit for each opponent, I hope the Steelers don’t stray far from this formula. They blitzed from everywhere, and they kept their foot on the gas. I highly recommend “Blitzburgh” as a frequent destination from this point on.