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2017 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 10, Steelers Defense

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On November 12, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Pittsburgh Steelers. In this Week 10 match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we were up against.

The Steelers finished 2016 with 11 wins and 5 losses. One of those wins came against our Colts while we were without Andrew Luck as he recovered from a concussion. This year we will be without Luck once again but we've traded in Scott Tolzien for Jacoby Brissett. Hopefully, Mr. Brisket can lead us to a different result this time around.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 7.


Defensive Scheme

Last week, I began my Steelers research and was able to find this piece at Behind The Steel Curtain by 58Steel. It goes over the basic alignments we can expect to see against our offensive alignments on Sunday. One thing to note is his use of players that are no longer with the Steelers franchise and some new faces he fails to mention. I will go over personnel, but I felt that it was important to note this before we jump into the scheme:

Refresher on alignment numbering:

BASE:
We will begin with their classic “3-4 Okie”:

Here we see the Steelers use a nose tackle and two defensive ends, aligned “head up” on their blockers. This was the front made famous by the 3-4 teams of Dick Lebeau, with two-gappers like Aaron Smith, Brett Kiesel, and of course, Casey “Big Snack” Hampton. The two inside linebackers are the “Buck” to the strong side, and the “Mack” to the weak side. The Buck is typically bigger and stronger than the Mack. This is because the Buck, playing the strongside, is required to take on more blockers while the Mack is more free to run sideline-to-sideline.

The Steelers usually employ their 3-4 front vs “Pro” or 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE) and 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE). In the picture above, the Broncos are in a 2 TE set, but with both TE’s aligned to the right. The Steelers are still highly effective vs the run in this front.

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NICKEL:

The Steelers use a different front when facing 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) or 10 personnel. They remove the NT, and replace him with an extra defensive back, normally a cornerback, to counter the 3rd WR on offense. Here is what the Steelers’ nickel defense typically looks like:

Notice the position of Tuitt and Heyward. They are aligned as defensive tackles would be in a 4-3 front. Moats (#55) and Harrison (#92) are on the line of scrimmage (LOS), functioning as defensive ends in a 4-3 defense, albeit from a standing position. I have labelled the LB’s with both their 3-4 names as well as their corresponding 4-3 monickers, as Shazier and Timmons take on those roles. Also of note is Will Allen, the strong safety, playing close to the LOS, much as a weak side linebacker would.

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DIME:

The Steelers began replacing Timmons with another safety (Robert Golden) in their nickel package during the latter part of the 2015 season. This typically came in 3rd and long (10+ yards) situations, where the threat of a run was minimal. Here is the the Steelers dime look:

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We’ve taken a look at the most common defensive fronts used by the Steelers. To summarize when certain defensive schemes are used:

-vs 21, 12 personnel: 3-4 Okie, Eagle

-vs 11, 10, personnel: 2-4 Nickel, Alt Nickel

-vs 11, 10 personnel in 3rd and long: Dime

-vs 23 personnel in short yardage: Goal Line

Like I said this info is more than a year old so I found this article that breaks down what the 2017 Steelers might look to do, it’s titled 4 scheme changes the Steelers are making for 2017 which seemed relevant given the circumstances:

More 3-4 base

This is an unexpected shift, but one we saw during the preseason. During the first preseason game against the Giants, the Steelers were in 3-4 formation 60% of the time when the Giants had three receivers on the field.

There are pros and cons to this potential change. While it may expose the defense to the passing attack, the rush defense will greatly improve with Javon Hargrave staying on the field. His presence will also improve the pass rush.

While this formation only leaves them with two cornerbacks on the field, they may rely on the athleticism and versatility of key players like Sean Davis and Ryan Shazier. If you recall, Davis spent time as the teams nickel cornerback in early 2016, while Shazier has proven to be a playmaker in the secondary getting four interceptions in the latter half of the 2016 season.

This is interesting. This current Steelers team is bucking (often, not always) the trend of matching alignment with the offense. The reason they can do this is due to personnel which we will talk about below, and it’s fascinating.

Dimebacker

While we say William Gay dabble with the role of a dimebacker this preseason, following this past weekend that role for him is likely over. Newly acquired safety J.J. Wilcox may be in line to take over that role.

Dime defense involves removing an inside linebacker from the field in place of another defensive back, giving the defense six total defensive backs on the field. The advantage of this formation is removing linebackers who can be a liability in coverage, in this case, Vince Williams.

The Steelers haven’t hidden their interest in bringing in a dimebacker either. They looked at players during the NFL Draft but none fell to them. They also signed safety Daimion Stafford in the spring, but the safety never arrived at training camp. Gay may have been an adequate stopgap, but Wilcox is a far better option.

Wilcox’ size alone makes him a more appealing option than Gay. He is two inches taller and roughly twenty-five pounds heavier. He also brings more athleticism and a hard-hitting presence (similar to Mike Mitchell).

While he’ll surely need time to become acquainted with the playbook, don’t be surprised to see Wilcox on the field as a dimebacker in passing situations.

Dimebacker, Moneybacker, $ILB, whatever you want to call it we’ve seen it before. The Cardinals famously employ a full-time moneybacker in Deone Bucannon and the NFL has taken notes.

This defensive scheme is rooted in old-school football principals. Dick Lebeau and his world famous zone blitz called Pittsburgh home for so many years. With that said they’ve built off of that foundation and much like their offense, and what they’re left with is a very modern version of a classic scheme. As a fan that has to be nice.


Defensive Line

The Steelers have managed to put together one of the NFL’s best defensive lines. Cameron Heyward was a first round pick in 2011 and has become a very good 3-4 defensive end. Twice in his career, Heyward has finished with 7+ sacks and is currently on pace to finish 2017 with his first 10 sack year. If he gets matched up one on one against either of our guards I fully expect Heyward to add to his total.

Tyson Alualu is a familiar name as the Jaguars selected Alualu in the first round of the 2010 draft. While he’s playing well he’s never lived up to his top 10 pick status. He will look to clog running lanes but I don’t expect to see him in the backfield on too many plays.

Javon Hargrave will line up most often as the Steelers nose tackle. Hargrave was selected in the 3rd round in 2016 and he’s playing well. Another defensive tackle we may see is former 2nd rounder Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt has looked very good so far but is struggling with injury and at this time it isn’t known if he will be available come game time. I fully expect Hargrave to be handled by Ryan Kelly for the most part but Kelly will be someone to watch as we face another good defensive front seven. The rest of our offensive line, you may not want to focus so much on those match ups. Those aren’t going to look pretty.

  • Pressure up the middle:

Nose tackle Javon Hargrave is able to get a push on the center which prevents Matt Stafford from being able to step up in the pocket. His offensive line does do a good job on the outside and Stafford rolls to his left and throws one of the best balls I’ve ever seen. So the pressure on the interior didn’t matter on this play, but it could have a big impact on Sunday as we don’t have Matthew Stafford under contract in Indianapolis.

  • QB hit:

The Steelers bring five rushers on this play and the stunt with the DE running a loop leaves both the center and guard blocking the NT. The defensive line executes this play perfectly. This results in a hurried throw and an incompletion. Consistently getting to Andy Dalton led him to have a bad day complete with fewer than 150 yards while throwing 2 interceptions on the day.

  • Caught them in a stunt:

This play looks to have been designed for the DT lined up over the right guard to crash inside to create a rushing lane for Cam Heyward. At the snap of the ball, (I believe) Javon Hargrave crashes inside while Hargrave takes on the double team.

Against most interior defensive linemen this play call against the called defense results in a nice gain. Most teams don’t have Cam Heyward and Javon Hargrave on the interior. Hargrave makes a nice individual play rerouting the ball carrier and assisting with the tackle.

  • Effort:

Jacoby Brissett holds the ball too long, at least he has most of the time this year. Week 9 saw a welcomed change and it netted positive results. If he is able to continue that trend (and the play calling allows it) this may not be as much of an issue.

With that said, if Brissett hesitates at all, this defensive line is going to keep coming. As a group, they don’t take plays off and you can never predict who’s going to get home, it might be a DT, DE or OLB.

Bottom line: Get the ball out quickly or get hit. This week that statement has never been truer.

  • Teamwork:

The Bengals offensive line is fairly similar to ours in that they keep trying and failing to build a consistently successful unit. Watching that game gave me a bad feeling about what we might see on Sunday.

This play sees Bud Dupree destroy rookie running back Joe Mixon and Tyson Alualu comes in and finishes the job.

  • Gaps filled:

Every gap is filled and the only hole the back might have was taken away by a great individual effort from Hargrave. The back is able to get outside but is unable to get away from what ends up being suffocating pursuit from the Steelers defense.

  • Penetration kills plays:

Stephon Tuitt didn’t make this tackle, but he prevented Kareem Hunt from getting any kind of momentum on this play. He had to avoid the young DE deep behind the LOS giving the rest of the defense time to get off their blocks and flow to the ball.

Outside of The Game:

Something pretty cool about this Steelers defensive line is that star DE Cameron Heyward is the son of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward. As a kid, I remember hearing about and seeing Ironhead Heyward highlights and even though his career was mostly over he did play with Peyton Manning in 1998 making the Colts roster:

This is a cool video from NFL Films about being the Son of Ironhead:

This Steelers defensive line is fairly young, stout and they’re what makes the things the rest of the defense does possible. If our line, led by Ryan Kelly and Anthony Castonzo, (who are both finally playing like they’re completely healthy) is able to consistently keep this unit in check on Sunday, we will have a chance to move the ball and score some points.

With that said, controlling the defensive line is far easier said than done given the amount of talent the Steelers have found in their front seven.


Linebackers

For as long as I can remember James Harrison has been the Steelers linebacker you think of when you think of Steelers linebackers. That’s changing and in a hurry. Harrison is on the roster and was productive in 2016 but the fact of the matter is, he’s 39 years old.

The new guard has rolled into Pittsburgh and guys like 4th year pro ILB Ryan Shazier and rookie OLB T.J. Watt make it easy to forget that Harrison is still on the team. Shazier is playing at an all-pro level and Watt looks like he might have been worth the first round draft pick the Steelers used on him.

You’re also going to see ILB Vince Williams who holds his own but isn’t going to stand out, as well as OLB Bud Dupree, who at this point has been a disappointing 1st round selection from 2016. There’s still time for Dupree to turn it around, after all, it’s only his second season in the league, but I don’t expect to see him have a large impact in our matchup. If we see any Anthony Chickillo on Sunday we need to be aware that he’s on the field and target him as he may be this defenses worst player.

Covering Hill:

Shazier uses good leverage to keep the most explosive player in football where he has help. This is a mismatch in coverage and everyone knows it. There aren’t a lot of DB’s who can keep up with Tyreek Hill, there are exactly 0 (zero) linebackers who can do so.

Shazier recognizes this and instead of doing something stupid, like diving, he mirrors Hill well and buys time while backup arrives.

Shazier can’t cover Hill, but he can cover Chester Rogers. As much as I like Rogers and think he’s a decent player (for now) Shazier is excellent in coverage and while he won’t be used as a CB3 in this one, he has the ability to blanket, a suddenly resurgent Jack Doyle. Watching this matchup will be fun and it will have an impact on Brissett’s stat line at the end of the day.

  • Using their aggressiveness against them:

Draws and well-executed screens can be effective against this group due to the aggressive nature of their defense. If you can catch them in a blitz, every one of them will be going 100 miles per hour towards the QB. If we can avoid tipping our hand Marlon Mack (or even Frank Gore) could rip off a big chunk of yards.

If we call our shots correctly, bringing in Mack on a 3rd and forever and running a similar draw play could end up being our most exciting play of the day. Brissett is just going to have to really sell the play because these guys play with great awareness and will sniff out a half-hearted effort.

  • Shazier from the back side:

Watch the inside linebacker lined up on the left guard’s outside shoulder, the guy with the white sleeve on his right arm. That’s Ryan Shazier. Shazier took some time to acclimate to the NFL game but he’s fully adapted now. The guy is fast and plays with great instincts, he won’t make a lot of mistakes and I haven’t found a lot of flaws.

Side note: Shazier will look funny if you see him without a helmet because he has alopecia. This is a pretty cool story from Shazier in the Players Tribune that talks about his life without... well... hair.

  • The other Watt:

This is another example of an edge rusher (in this case TJ Watt) setting up a left tackle throughout the game with outside rushes, only to beat him on the inside. The tackle on this play believed he was passing Watt to his guard and Watt was still able to sack Andy Dalton despite being, quite literally, tackled by the left guard.

  • Shazier from the back side:

The Chiefs line gets a good push and Hunt has a nice hole. The backside of this inside zone shouldn’t be an issue but Shazier converts speed to power to cross the left tackles face and make a play. Hunt was still able to pick up 4-5 yards but had he not made this play it could have gone for a lot more.

  • What have we learned here:

What we’ve learned is, if at all possible we shouldn’t rely on any running back we have to block the Steelers linebackers one on one. It won’t always be possible, obviously, hopefully, Brissett will have access to a full complement of hot routes to check into.

  • Again with the running back thing:

Kareem Hunt has had a storybook start to his NFL career. Things couldn’t have gone much better for the mid-round draft pick in the first half of his first professional season. With that said, the amount of crap he took in the film room after watching this play was likely immense.

He looks like every 3rd grader who has ever been in my way near a Chinese buffet.

  • Caught against Hunt in coverage:

Here we see linebacker Vince Williams get caught in coverage against a much better player in Hunt. He didn’t play the pass well and was beat. If we see a similar match up against Williams we should target it.

With that said, look at the other inside linebacker; Shazier who is running in stride with none other than Tyreek Hill.

This linebacking unit may be the most talented LB corps we face this year, which is saying something considering we’ve played the Seahawks and Jaguars. They can do everything you want them to do and if Ryan Shazier becomes a free agent before his 33rd birthday (won’t happen), someone will break the bank to bring him in.

We shouldn’t expect to see much success against this unit. Not against the defensive line and probably not the defensive backs either, but it’s worth a shot I guess.


Defensive Backs

At this point, I’m not even going to question why the Cleveland Browns do any of the things that they do. It’s baffling, which is a shame because I wanted there to be an analytics revolution that would sweep across the NFL and change player evaluation in some of the same ways that it changed for pro baseball. As it turns out, choosing the Browns to test those principals was a horrible mistake. A single example (in what could be a 1,000 page novel of Browns team building errors) is their release of cornerback Joe Haden.

At the time, releasing Haden wasn’t seen as a bad move because he was riddled with injuries and the Browns had better options. I was surprised by the move, but I didn’t think it was horrible. In true Browns fashion, Joe Haden left for a division “rival” (can’t be a rival if you literally never win) and is playing really well.

Cornerback Artie Burns was taken 25th overall in the 2016 draft and he’s playing well for a second-year corner. With that said, he can struggle at times and especially in zone coverage. I believe he will improve over the course of his career and he does have the physical tools to be a top 10 or 15 corner.

Free safety Sean Davis has been up and down in his second season after the Steelers selected him in the 2nd round in 2016. Safety Mike Mitchel has played about like you expect him to play in that he’s a good but not great safety and you probably remember him most for being excited about getting run over by Leonard Fournette. Mitchel is currently struggling with an ankle injury and may not be available, though time will tell.

Mike Hilton was a UDFA out of Ole Miss who bounced around the league before getting a chance from the Steelers and he has made the most of his opportunity. He should see plenty of snaps and is a guy that is easy to root for. DB William Gay is being used in ways that he hasn’t been used before and he hasn’t had much of an impact despite seeing nearly 30% of his team's snaps.

  • Joe Haden:

This was a crazy play that Haden came up with. I wasn’t able to tell, but the ball did appear to be tipped by the OLB on that side of the field. Either way, this goes down as an INT for the former Browns DB.

  • Nowhere to throw:

When a quarterback rolls out and he has a bunch of crossing patterns coming his way (like on this designed roll out) someone beats his man and gets open. The Steelers prevent that running great man coverage, despite everyone flowing away from the actual play at the snap.

  • Mike Hilton:

Hilton was the UDFA I talked about above and here we see him lay a hit on the Bengals RB. It wasn’t quite this good, but this is a nice play, one that gets you noticed.

  • Found a hole in the zone:

How Matt Stafford fits this ball in that bucket is a mystery to most QBs. It was a great pass and at the end of this play, the wide receiver just dropped the ball. It might be tough to see on the all-22 but no one punches this ball out, the receiver just catches the pass, takes a few steps, jukes and just fumbles the ball. The Steelers DB falls on it and a turnover is a turnover.

  • Again with the aggressiveness:

Alex Smith is in his final year with the Chiefs. I know that because you don’t trade up to draft a QB in the top ten picks of the first round to draft a guy you never plan on starting. With that said, Smith has played better this year than ever before and this play just highlights that.

Brissett isn’t avoiding that sack but if he could, we’re going to see our backs have similar opportunities out of the backfield given the number of vertical routes we run. Nothing is likely to come of it because Smith is a much better athlete than Brissett but it might be something to watch for.

  • They fall asleep:

This is another play that is possible due to Alex Smith keeping a play alive. The zone coverage here was good but they fell asleep on the receivers and Smith rolled out and found his receiver who didn’t quit on the route. The result was six points.

The Steelers least talented unit on this side of the ball is probably their defensive backs, which is bad news for our Colts as they’ve given up the second-fewest passing yards in the league at this point in the season. It might end up being a really long day for TY Hilton and especially Jacoby Brissett.


Final Thoughts

The Steelers defense is currently the fourth-ranked defense in the league. The only other top 5 defense we’ve faced in 2017 is the Jacksonville Jaguars. That game went poorly. I expect this one will be similar, unfortunately.

They say “any given Sunday” for a reason. At any point, anyone can win one against anyone else. Everyone who takes the field on Sunday will be a professional football player and that means we do have a chance to win this game.

That chance is just very, very small.