The final score was a lot closer than this game of unbeatens really was. And in the matchup of one of the best offenses vs. one of the best defenses in the NFL, it was the Steelers D that came out on top. Pittsburgh controlled the game on this side of the ball, led by the speed and aggressiveness of their front-7.
The Steelers Defense is #1 in the NFL in terms of pressure percentage, and they’re well ahead of the rest of the pack. Against the run, they rank 2nd in yards per attempt and yards per game. That’s all because of the way they play up front. Last week, this helped them take away the key element of Tennessee’s offense, the running game.
The below string of run stops shows you how many ways this swarming defense can win at the line, and how they were able to keep the Titans in less manageable down-and-distance situations throughout the game.
On this counter, focus on outside linebackers T.J. Watt (#90) to the left and Bud Dupree (#48) to the right.
That’s fast pursuit from the backside by Watt and great physicality on the front side by Dupree, who “same-foot-same-shouldered” the pulling guard. 2nd-and-7 became 3rd-and-9.
Here’s inside linebacker Robert Spillane (#41) blowing up this play and clogging the running lane by taking on the lead blocker.
Pittsburgh’s inside linebackers were quick to diagnose and attack the line of scrimmage all day against the run. Here, it turned 1st-and-10 into 2nd-and-8.
The Steelers aren’t afraid to get their safeties involved either. Here’s Terrell Edmunds (#34) coming on a blitz from the right side of the screen on 2nd-and-17.
I love this approach by Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler. Don’t let the offense off the hook on 2nd-and-long by letting them pick up easy yards. On the very next play, Tannehill almost fired an interception on a forced throw that was the result of being in a 3rd-and-16 situation.
Below, focus on inside linebacker Vince Williams (#98). Watch how quickly he diagnosed the run and attacked the line of scrimmage, ruining the play. This set up a 2nd-and-10 situation.
It’s hard to get big plays in the running game when your offensive line can’t get to the second level because linebackers are at the line of scrimmage mere split seconds after the snap. Pittsburgh’s D-line occupying those blockers is a big part of that as well. Overall, the domination by the Steelers’ front-7 kept the Titans off schedule as an offense.
Being aggressive around the line of scrimmage killed two birds with one stone for the Steelers. They could clog running lanes with extra defenders on early downs, and they could get after Ryan Tannehill if the initial run action ended up being a play-fake. The below sack is a great example. Focus on inside linebacker Vince Williams (#98) once again.
Both of Pittsburgh’s sacks came against play-action on Sunday. The ability to disrupt this key element of the Titans offense was critical to the Steelers’ success. Play-action did lead to a big 73-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter, but it wasn’t a consistent part of Tennessee’s offense like it normally is. And that prevented them from getting things going for most of the afternoon.
One of the reasons it’s so hard to have success against the Steelers Defense is that they put pressure on offenses, both physically and mentally. You saw some of those physical plays above. You can see the mental strain they force below on this 3rd-and-5. Here, the Steelers initially aligned in what appeared to be a Cover-3 look, with 5 defenders on the line of scrimmage threatening to rush.
That’s not out of the ordinary, right? This is the Steelers we’re talking about here. The zone blitz with a 3-under 3-deep look behind it is what they have been doing since the early 90’s. I’m sure you can guess where we’re going with this. The Steelers did not play what they were showing initially.
To the top of the screen, safety Terrell Edmunds dropped to the deep half and cornerback Joe Haden sat before playing a “trail” technique. This was 2-man to that side.
To the front side, the Steelers matched up with a 4-man box to handle Tennessee’s bunch look. You can see how they matched up midway through the play below.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, aligned as the single-high safety, ended up attacking the inside middle route instead of dropping deep.
This forced a contested throw, and the result was an incompletion.
The Steelers’ ability to disguise coverage and also get pressure on the quarterback is critical. Quarterbacks can beat disguised coverage when they have time in the pocket. When they don’t, or they feel like they don’t (and Tannehill had good reason to believe he didn’t from previous drives), they need to guess right so they can deliver the ball right at the top of their drop. If they can’t see through the disguise and their pre-snap read does not match what they see post snap, there is little time to adjust, scan the field, and move through multiple reads. This leaves less margin for error.
When it was all said and done, Ryan Tannehill threw for just 220 yards (73 of which came on 1 play). Coupled with Derrick Henry’s 75 yards on 20 carries (Just 3.8 yards per rush), the Titans struggled to sustain drives. While they did come back at the end and make things close, their inability to move the ball throughout the day came back to bite them.
The Steelers will face a different animal altogether in Week 8 in the Ravens Offense and Lamar Jackson. Their ability to remain the only unbeaten team in the NFL will depend on whether or not they can control the line of scrimmage like they did last week against the Titans.
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