Unsurprisingly, the Steelers are near the top of the league in most meaningful defensive categories. They are there because of their ability to disrupt offenses and create negative plays. They do this in multiple ways with both their coverage and pass rush schemes. Against the Browns on Sunday, it took just 3 snaps before they were able to make a game-changing play.
This was 3rd-and-3. From the illustration below, you can see that it looked like the Steelers were playing 2-man coverage (man-to-man underneath with two deep safeties).
One of the best ways to beat this coverage is with routes that go across the field. And that’s what Baker Mayfield was targeting here. The only problem was that the Steelers weren’t playing 2-man. Right at the snap, Minkah Fitzpatrick dropped down into the middle of the field to rob those in-breaking routes. The other deep safety, Terrell Edmunds, did a good job of staying on his side of the field long enough to sell that it was 2-man before racing to the middle of the field.
Mayfield assumed the Steelers were playing 2-man and that there would be no help in the middle of the field. He did not confirm post snap what he was reading pre-snap, though. Instead, he immediately looked left and stared down his receiver. The results were disastrous.
On that play, the Steelers won with coverage disguise. Every receiver was accounted for, and Pittsburgh was able to bait Mayfield into a dangerous throw. However, that’s not the way things shake out on most plays. In fact, even the best defenses allow receivers to break wide open several times per game, especially in today’s NFL. The Steelers do a great job of creating enough chaos in coverage and with their pass rush, though, that when there are open receivers, the quarterback doesn’t always have time to find them.
Watch below to see what we mean. On this play, you can see Jarvis Landry (#80, the motion man) break open in the middle of the field.
But Baker Mayfield wasn’t able to find him. He didn’t have time. From the end zone angle, you can see why. Focus on the left side of the screen. That’s Bud Dupree (#48) outside the right tackle, T.J. Watt (#90) hovering over the right guard, and Stephon Tuitt (#91) in the A-Gap.
The alignment of those three to one side of the formation, with T.J. Watt’s presence over the right guard being a main factor, forced Cleveland into 1-on-1 blocking situations against Pittsburgh’s top 3 pass rushers.
Tuitt was able to get home at the top of Mayfield’s drop, and that ruined the play for Cleveland.
You’ll also notice how perfectly timed Watt’s rush was. This wasn’t the only play in the game that he seemed to have a beat on the snap count. On the below snap, watch how quickly he got off the ball and disrupted the play.
The playclock winding down was a bit of a factor, but it was at 6 and 3 seconds respectively on the above plays. That still leaves enough time to jump off sides if you don’t have some kind of tell that the snap is coming.
Looking at this play from the sideline angle, you can get an idea of how the Steelers put together their pass rush and coverage schemes. Pre-snap, you can see that Steelers defenders were hovering around the middle of the field. They could be doing anything – blitzing, playing man, dropping into zone. Ultimately, they rotated to Tampa-2 zone coverage at the snap.
If this coverage was straight forward from the snap, and if the pass rush wasn’t as disruptive, Baker should have been able to find the deep curl route to the left. That’s right into the hole behind the middle linebacker in Tampa-2, one of the weak spots of the coverage. But it wasn’t straight forward. And Mayfield was under duress. It’s tough to read post-snap movement in coverage with the Steelers’ pass rush swarming all around you. And this is the type of pressure Pittsburgh puts on opposing quarterbacks. That said, Mayfield didn’t help his situation by making an awful decision after the play broke down.
From a pass-rushing standpoint, this wasn’t one of those games where Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler drew up intricate blitzes and completely confused the offense to the point where free rushers were getting in on down after down. Instead, as he often does, he put his players in advantageous 1-on-1 situations and let their talent take over.
The loss of Devin Bush certainly hurts, but Butler has this Steelers Defense looking like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. They’ll certainly be tested in Week 7 against the 5-0 Titans and their red hot offense in what could be the best matchup of the week.
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