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Steelers Film Room: Deep Middle Area Proved Costly To The Defense This Season

In the latter part of the 2017 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers developed a habit that would eventually become part of the reason for their demise in the AFC Divisional playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s not uncommon for defensive units to have certain areas of weakness, but the unsettling part was the fact that this area became an issue weekly with little to signs of improving. For a defense that would eventually finish in the top 5, this particular issue was a reflection of the ongoing problems with the Steelers secondary.

In this film room session, we will take a look at an area of the Steelers defense that opposing teams exploited on a regular basis — the deep middle area of the field.

Week 11: Rishard Matthews 75-yard TD

This particular play is important to study, as it represents the first instance during the season where a team showed that the deep middle of the Steelers defense was a vulnerable area. At this point of the contest, the Steelers had 16-7 lead in the game and had dominated on both ends of the ball. The Steelers in this case are lined up in a 3-4-4 under front. The people to key on in this sequence are Tennessee Titans receiver Rishard Matthews lined up on the right side and across from him Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh. The lone defender seen in the back at the left side is Steelers safety Robert Golden; what is important to note is that Golden is the only safety on the field for this sequence. When the ball is snapped Matthews makes his move toward Sensabaugh. As Matthews breaks into his post route, Golden makes his way towards the receiver; as a result of this, there is no help over the top. To make matters worse, Matthews beats Sensabaugh cleanly with his post route inside leaving the deep middle wide open. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota makes a beautiful throw to Matthews and he finishes the rest.

When viewing this play several times, it appeared that the Steelers were playing a variation of a cover-0. In a cover-0, the following takes place — First, the defense front must get heavy pressure on the quarterback, which is did not do in this case. Second, man-to-man coverage is key since there are no safeties deep and the linebackers are not backing up deep enough. Sensabaugh in this case was damaging since Golden was not going to be providing help over the top.


AFC Divisional Playoff Round: Keenan Cole 45-yard reception

During this point of the game, though the Steelers had not scored on their possession, they still had the momentum in this game. This particular play represented a huge setback to the Steelers chances of making a comeback in this game, as it placed the Jacksonville Jaguars deep in the Steelers red zone, where running back Leonard Fournette scored the touchdown to give them a 35-21 lead. As in the previous clip, the Steelers defense appears to be in man coverage; notably, Steelers cornerback Artie Burns, Jr. is seen lined up across Jaguars receiver Keenan Cole. As in the first example, the Steelers only have one safety in this sequence, this being Sean Davis. From the snap, it appears that Burns was looking to punch Cole’s inside, but Cole already had the jump on him. Davis comes in to support the run or take anything that comes in the shallow area. Knowing that Davis is the only receiver, Burns’s assignment becomes that much more important. As the sequence unfolds, Cole has him beat on the Go route and cornerback Joe Haden arrives too late, enabling Cole to make the reception.

Much of this play reminded me of the Titans play in the sense that the Steelers front got little to no pressure on Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles. It’s likely that the Steelers elected to play a cover-0, as they had little to no respect for Bortles ability to throw the ball downfield with accuracy, a decision which I am sure they regretted. Lastly, Burns getting beat was important as there was no safety help over the top; thus leaving the deep middle wide open for a big play. This play proved to be costly and arguably one of the biggest turning points of the game.


How Can This Be Solved?

In situations where the Steelers defense is in the opposing team’s end of field, this defense should stick to playing zone coverage. With the exception of Haden, the Steelers cornerbacks have not adequately proven that they are capable of playing more man-to-man coverage. With a zone coverage scheme, the Steelers defense ensures that there is a safety in the deep part of the field where they are vulnerable. The only instances where I would recommend using a cover-0, would be past midfield to red zone; otherwise, they are putting themselves at risk each time. There is major responsibility on the part of defensive coordinator Keith Butler to ensure that he recognizes the weaknesses in the secondary and puts them in the best position to succeed.

With the absence of gifted linebacker Ryan Shazier, the shallow middle of the field often became a spot exploited, as linebacker Sean Spence did not have the ability to effectively cover this area the way Shazier was able to. In addition, even with the presence of a safety such as Mike Mitchell or Davis, often times they would make glaring errors in coverage which the other team took advantage of in that area of the field. It is imperative that the Steelers address both the safety and inside linebacker positions in the upcoming NFL draft. Spence’s skillset proves that he can be an adequate backup, but he does not have the skillset of a starter. Linebacker Vince Williams is good at supporting the run, but has displayed many deficiencies in pass coverage. Mitchell himself will be entering his last season and his position should be addressed, as this draft class presents many opportunities to find a safety that can help in this area.

Born and raised Ottawa, Ontario Canada, Kelly is a Steelers contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. Formerly a contributor for SBNation's 'Behind the Steel Curtain'. Kelly can be reached via the Twitter handle @kanozie80

13 Comments on Steelers Film Room: Deep Middle Area Proved Costly To The Defense This Season

  1. Steelers also need to improve their run defense. They allowed 4.5 yards per carry this season which ranked them 27th in the NFL.

    That’s another reason they need an inside linebacker to replace Shazier. I think they could also use a better nose tackle but the conventional wisdom is not to draft a nose tackle with a high pick since the nose tackle is often not on the field for passing downs.

  2. I would like to address the 800 pound elephant in the room. Is the 3-4 defense outdated in today’s NFL? The Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders, Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, and the Chicago Bears, like the Steelers, currently utilize the 3-4. Of those teams, only the Steelers, Rams, Chiefs and Titans made it into the 12 team playoff field. None of those four advanced to their Conference Championship game or the Super Bowl. It says here that in today’s pass-happy NFL, teams with four man fronts get more consistent pressure on QB’s and thus have a higher degree of playoff success. Fully 2/3 of the teams still using a 3-4 defense did not even make it into the playoffs.

    • Kelechi Anozie // January 23, 2018 at 11:29 AM // Reply

      I don’t think it’s outdated as this type of front can be varied; Butler in much of the year would run a 4-man front with 2 defensive tackles and outside linebacker on the edges; so essentially they can make hybrid 4-3 type fronts.

      I’ll be touching on this in a later article, but the key to getting pressure on the QB in pertaining to this defense are OLBs. They are key as the linemen are all essentially interior linemen. Even with this, you have to remember that the Steelers led the entire league in sacks with 56, so the scheme itself is not really an issue for this team.

      The main problem is with the secondary. Although pressure upfront does help the secondaries, the secondaries have to remember their assignments. As you saw in the first clip, if a defensive back is unable to play basic man coverage against a receiver, they’ll eventually get picked apart through the course of a game. Part of the problems with the defense towards the end of the year is that there as little communication happening back there. One of the great things about Shazier was that he was always communicating to everyone; they don’t have that, especially in the middle where they were most vulnerable towards the end of the season.

      In terms of success in the playoffs, well if there’s any lesson to be learned by Jacksonville’s loss, elite pass rushing can only get you so far, but if you encounter quarterbacks like Brady that release the ball relatively quickly, it may not make a difference. As the Steelers did in their loss, the Patriots exploited weakness in their cover-3, focusing mainly on gaps in the secondary ( AJ Bouye to be exact). Despite having a good 4-3 front on defense, the Steelers still managed 500+ yards of offense, as they successfully exploited the flats and had good blocking upfront.

      So in totality, elite defense have to be balanced from top to bottom. This Steelers defense is quite up front but can get better; the question is how can they improve the middle and back of their defense to become a SB contender?

      • The Steelers also got gashed in run defense. In the 3-4, the nose tackle simply clogs up the middle. In the 4-3, the MLB fills the gap and penetrates to create more negative plays in the run game. I understand that the Steelers lead the league in sacks, but they came in inconsistent large chunks against inferior teams. In the games the Steelers lost, including the playoffs, they weren’t able to sack the QB or maintain consistent pressure on him either. Your points are not invalid, but Bortles had way too much time allowing him to exploit those weaknesses that you pointed out. The longer the QB keeps a play alive, the more exposed weaknesses in deep cover situations becomes.

        • Kelechi Anozie // January 23, 2018 at 3:40 PM // Reply

          It depends where the nose tackle is positioned. For instance, in a 3-4 over, the nose tackle could be lined up in tech-1 instead of tech-0 (over the nose tackle). In such a circumstance, the WLB has more options to fill whichever gap, depending on where the play is going. The Nose tackle can fill the gap between the guard and the center, giving room for the SLB to fill that as well. Running a 4-3 doesn’t necessarily ensure that more lanes are penetrated. With that noted, you can still run a hybrid version of a 3-4/4-3. If you studied the films I posted, you’ll see that in each case, there were 4 people rushing the quarterback; 2 nose tackles and 2 OLBs; this is what I mean about a hybrid version. So essentially, they run a 4-3 with it actually being a 4-3.

          More to the point, if you’re wanting them to switch to a 4-3, then that would mean everyone on the D-lineman exception to Heyward and Hargraves would have to go; none of them have the speed for a 4-3 set.

          You’re talking about how this team couldn’t sack the quarterback in that game, granted that is true; yet the secondary was unable to stop completions on 3rd down; that last clip was a huge example. Even if they couldn’t get penetration, Artie Burns had a job to do and failed unfortunately.

          You talked about the games that the Steelers lost were related to not being able to get pressure or not getting any sacks. Well let’s review them:

          Bears vs Steelers: The defense finished that game with 2 sacks, 8 tackles for loss and several pressures – The deciding factor in that game was the fact that the Steelers couldn’t stop their counter plays on the outside; in other words, Anthony Chickillo to my recollection was unable to set the edge and Jordan Howard ran all over them.

          Steelers vs Jaguars: Steelers defense finished with 2 sacks, an interception and 4 tackles for loss. The defense did their part, Ben didn’t help matters with 5 interceptions and 2 of them returned for touchdowns.

          Steelers vs Patriots: Steelers defense finished with 2 sacks, an interception (Vince Williams), and 3 tackles for loss. In this particular game, it came down to one play which was overturned.

          So Bob you see what we just discovered? In all their losses during the season, they did generate sacks and turnovers; the only exception was their playoff game. For this defense to be elite, the last thing they need is a change of scheme. You have to understand Bob, not all schemes work uniformly for every team. No matter the concept, you’ll still have issues. Noting the problems this team has in the middle and in their secondary, I can assure you that switching to a 4-3 isn’t going to help matters.

          In conclusion Bob, before asserting that my points are invalid, I will give you this challenge. Study the various types of 3-4 formations that exist, when you do, let me know reasons why that a certain 3-4 formation would be ineffective in generating pressure. Once you do, we’ll have this debate again. Enjoy

          • “It depends where the nose tackle is positioned.”

            Also depends on how good your nose tackle is.

          • Kelechi Anozie // January 24, 2018 at 12:02 PM //

            Depending on the scheme they’re running, it may not matter about the Nose tackle. Generally when the Steelers run their hybrid 4-3/3-4 fronts, they’ll generally have two interior linemen (Cameron Heyward/Tyson Alualu or Javon Hargraves), and two outside rushers. Even if the nose tackle is positioned in tech-0, you still have both the SLB and WLB assigned the gaps in between to fill.

            Stopping the run is a collective effort; especially nowadays where more teams run counters outside and zone blocking schemes (review the Bears game), the nose tackle can only do so much.

            Javon Hargraves as far as I followed from Pro Football Focus, generally received good reviews and rightfully so; he’s quick off the ball, has a good football IQ and is one of the few nose tackles that plays with the proper nose tackle. If you’re equating “good nose tackle” to size, they can get that in FA, but as far as the draft is concerned, it’s not nearly a priority as it is getting a Mack ILB to replace Shazier and a FS(free safety) to perhaps replace Mike Mitchell.

          • Kelechi Anozie // January 24, 2018 at 12:17 PM //

            Just to correct, I meant to say that Hargraves plays with the proper leverage and pad level.

  3. Better talent is always a plus but more than talent the Steelers need focus and discipline. The Patriots win with Brady and a supporting cast of ordinary players. They get the most out of them and the Steelers must do the same.

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