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.