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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Steelers Defense, now featuring the only healthy Watt

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Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Overview

On November 3rd, 2019 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to the City of Bridges to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. In this Week 9 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

This overview usually focuses on the history between the Colts and their opponent and (thanks to Peyton Manning) most weeks, history has favored the Colts. This week is a little different as our Colts trail the Steelers 24-6 all time. Recent history hasn’t been kind either, the last win coming back in November of 2008 and before that November of 2005. To find the next win on that list you have to travel all the way back to 1984 and the fourth Colts win took place in 1977. To say this series has been one-sided is an understatement. Fortunately, this week (like all weeks) doesn’t care about the past. Both franchises are in a different place than they’ve ever been, and if the Colts are going to start to even the score, now would be the time to start.

Let’s see what we can expect in week 9.


Defense

For years the Pittsburgh Steelers defense and Dick LeBeau ran roughshod over NFL offenses with his unique zone blitz schemes. By the time NFL offensive coordinators had figured out how to beat it, LeBeau was in his late 70’s and, having spent his life coaching football, it’s fair to say the guy had a pretty good run. Once the team had determined their time with LeBeau calling the shots had run its course the team promoted linebackers coach Keith Butler. Butler took over the DC role in 2014 and unlike his predecessor, he hasn’t been met with the same fanfare.

When I turned on the games I saw a defense that plays with 3-4 personnel. The Steelers, like all teams, stay in sub-packages most of the time. They are fast and physical and have blue-chip players at all three levels of their defense. So what gives, why have Steelers fans been calling for Keith Butler’s job for the past couple years with increasing frequency?

Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot took a look at one of the issues of the Keith Butler experience, Kozora starts the article by looking at back to back plays from the Steelers 2018 match-up against the Kansas City Chiefs. From the article:

On both these plays, the Chiefs went to an empty set, five wide. The Steelers are in their 2-3-6 dime defense. Butler wants to come out swinging and dials up an overload DB blitz. It’s similar to Dick LeBeau’s Thunder Fire Zone... but instead of playing zone and pattern matching behind, they run Cover 1...

The first play is, in part, just a heck of a throw by Mahomes. Back shoulder to Tyreek Hill working on Artie Burns. Burns can’t make the tackle initially and eventually has to track him down after a big 36 yard gain.

Did you notice something…off about that play though? The Chiefs sure did. Check the slot. There’s T.J. Watt, walked off ball and over Sammy Watkins. It was well-covered, Watkins ran a short curl, so no harm there.

But the Chiefs knew that was a matchup to take advantage of. So what did they do on the next play?

Yup. Lined up in empty. Exact same look.

And the Steelers did the same thing. DB blitz with Hilton and Edmunds. Watt in man coverage on Watkins. And that’s what the Chiefs look to take advantage of.

Instead of running Hill vertically, or Watkins on a curl, they switch assignments. Hill runs a one-step smoke to hold Burns in the flat. That opens Watkins up vertical, predictably toasting Watt down the seam. And with the deep safety sliding to the blitz side, there’s zero chance of help over the top. By design, Watt is 100% on his own.

The only saving grace here is that Mahomes has too good of an arm. The pass skips feet in front of Watkins. That doesn’t stop the Chiefs, who score several plays later, taking the 2nd half lead and regaining control.

It’s a play that gets overlooked because it looks innocuous on the box score. Incomplete. But coaching is all about the process, not always the outcome. This isn’t the Chiefs coming up with an exotic scheme and exploiting a matchup. It’s the Steelers handing it to them on a silver platter. They lost as soon as they lined up and it’s obvious to see.

This predictability is only part of the problem in Pittsburgh, when you really dig deeper you can start to understand why the defense is predictable and in an odd way, it’s caused by the system’s complexity.

Mark Caboly of the Athletic (subscription required, sorry) took a look at the system’s complexity:

Communication was part of the failure last week as the Steelers put the green dot helmet on outside linebacker T.J. Watt for the first time. That responsibility usually is reserved for an inside linebacker when it comes to relaying the defensive calls, but with the Steelers being a little overly complicated with their schemes and multiple personnel changes within the schemes, you never know who is going to be the inside linebacker on a particular play.

Sometimes it’s Vince Williams or Barron and other times it’s Bush — depending on what the call is from Butler. It can get complicated, but Butler isn’t about to dummy it down anytime soon...

The days of the 3-4 defense, or Base-Okie as the Steelers call it, are over. It’s a sub-package league, and the Steelers have to be at the top of the list when it comes to the different packages they use.

This is what they use and why:

Base-Okie — Stephon Tuitt (RDE), Javon Hargrave (NT), Cam Heyward (LDE), Bud Dupree (ROLB), T.J. Watt (LOLB), Vince Williams (ILB), Mark Barron (ILB), Steven Nelson (LCB), Joe Haden (RCB), Terrell Edmunds (SS) and Sean Davis (FS) are on the field at the same time. It’s mostly used on early downs with regular offensive personnel.

Nickel — Out goes Williams and Hargrave, and Devin Bush (ILB) and Mike Hilton (slot) come into the game. This is used to combat teams using three wide receivers and the need for more coverage people.

Big Nickel — It is the same as the nickel, but Hilton is replaced by safety Kameron Kelly, giving the Steelers a three-safety look. Davis then plays closer to the line of scrimmage. This allows the defensive to have more versatility with bigger bodies covering tight ends.

Dime — Hilton stays in the slot and Cam Sutton is the dime backer with Hargrave and Williams out. This is used for four and five receiver sets.

Big Dime — Kelly comes in for Hilton and Davis slips down into the box. This provides more beef in the lineup that can combat teams that might run or pass on a particular down.

Also, there’s the goal-line and short-yardage package (penny) as well as the quarter (one linebacker, three defensive linemen and seven defensive backs) and the “dollar” (seven defensive backs and no inside linebackers). The quarter and dollar were more of a 2017 thing, but it illustrates how confusing it can get.

Throw in multiple responsibilities individually, injuries before and during games and players getting tired, and it can be utter chaos for everybody to get lined up, get the correct call and then know what their responsibilities are.

Yeah, it’s a lot.

Normally a complex system is complex to try to prevent predictability but when you consider the first article and the fact that a glorified defensive end is the one calling plays in the huddle because he’s the only guy you’re sure is going to be in the game, then yeah, you probably have to dumb down your play calls and things are going to start to get predictable.

The good news for the Colts is that I noticed a lot of the kinds of cornerback blitzes from these Steelers, that have been shown to be so predictable over time. I didn’t chart the games because, well, I just don’t have the time for that, so I didn’t pick up on any obvious tells myself but I am confident given what we know and the consistency that Keith Butler-led defenses have had these kinds of issues, that Frank Reich and his excellent staff will be able to find the flaws Butler puts on the field.

The aspect of this defense that concerns me most is the number of turnovers they have forced. Through seven games they’ve forced 19 turnovers which is good for second in the league. The Colts are averaging one turnover given up per game, with 7 on the season. When push comes to shove the winner of the turnover battle will have a great chance to take home the victory in this one.


Defensive Line

The Steelers have given up more than 100 yards on the ground three times in 2019 those games came against the Ravens, 49ers, and Seahawks. The Ravens and 49ers are first and second in the league averaging 204 and 181 rushing yards per game. The Seahawks are ninth in the league averaging 130 rushing yards per game in 2019. This Steelers front seven limited the Ravens to 139 rushing yards, the 49ers to 168 and they allowed the Seahawks to rush for 151 back in week two.

On the surface giving up that many yards on the ground seems like an indication that this defense is one that can be run on, possibly at will. In context, that may not be the case. So when I turned on the games, what did I see? I saw a talented but inconsistent front seven. Play after play the Steelers front seven would fill games and knife into the backfield to make stops after short gains and then their opponent would break off a ten to fifteen yard run due to a blown gap assignment. The Steelers have the ability to be very good up front, they don’t appear to have the discipline.

The names to know up front are Cameron Heyward, defensive tackle, Javon Hargrave, nose tackle and Tyson Alualu. If the Miami game is any indication you may notice Isaiah Buggs rotate in from time to time. Heyward may be the best overall player on this defense while Hargrave and Alualu are good all on their own. In all this is a very talented, experienced group.

NFL defenses are position flexible, why shouldn’t my breakdowns be?

So I probably could have thrown this play in with the linebacker clips but It will work just fine here. At the end of the day, defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt made this play happen. Tuitt tore his pectoral muscle and was placed on injured reserve around two weeks ago. The DT lined up over the right guard does a good job engaging first with the guard and working into the right tackle.

When both the right guard and tackle engage it leaves a wide-open lane for outside linebacker T.J. Watt to run through. The center sees Watt coming and does his best to slow him down which leaves three Bengals to block three Steelers and given the state of the entire Cincinnati Bengals franchise, having any one-on-one blocks against a front this talented seems pretty risky.

Tyson Alualu with the batted ball

I noticed several batted balls at the line of scrimmage while watching this team. They do a good job of getting their hands up when it’s clear they aren’t going to have a chance to hit the quarterback and the play above was one of ten interceptions this defense has created thus far. Given Jacoby Brissett’s struggles with batted balls last week, this will be something to watch.

Yes, I know it’s the Dolphins.

Yes, the Dolphins have a historically bad offensive line. Yes, the Steelers should have made plays like this most of the night, but the bottom line is, this is the kind of play I saw from this front seven often. They’re big, strong and fast and if you know what to do and you aren’t taking too long to figure it out all of that adds up to being pretty good at football.

Sometimes though, it seems that this Steelers defense breaks down in some way. Maybe it’s in their communication, maybe it’s in the complexity of their system, maybe Jovan Hargrave needed a breather and nobody thought to sub him out. Regardless of the reasons, Frank Reich and Nick Siriani need to stay dedicated to the run in this game and fans should stay patient. I believe there will be quite a few plays like the one above in between a few long runs, but I believe the opportunities will be there if the Colts pick their spots while trying to wear out this defensive line.


Linebackers

We all know Ryan Shazier’s story by now. Paralyzed on the field it was believed he would never walk again, now Shazier is routinely seen at Steelers games walking and doing many of the things doctors told him he would never do again. After Shazier’s injury (always see what you hit, kids) the Steelers had a gaping hole at the linebacker position and made an effort to fix that hole in a big way in the 2019 draft.

The Steelers, as a rule, don’t move up in the draft. Last year they broke that rule to move up and select Devin Bush Jr. out of Michigan. Bush Jr. stepped in from day one to start and play a big role on his team’s defense. So far he has been highly productive, on pace for 135 tackles this season he also has two interceptions and four (4!) fumble recoveries.

To go along with the talented rookie the Steelers will send out Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Mark Barron, and Vince Williams. Had I listed Watt and Dupree as defensive ends no one would have batted an eye, both men will most often be found working at the line of scrimmage or rushing the passer. Dupree has racked up four sacks on the season and Watt has six of his own.

Mark Barron started his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a top ten pick in 2012. After struggling in a more traditional safety role the Bucs sent Barron to the St. Louis Rams where he took on a role that allowed him to play closer to the line of scrimmage, it was a role he excelled in and now many years later Barron has embraced the switch to playing a more pure linebacker role. With all of that said, the results have been mixed and he isn’t someone I’m worried about, his story is just an interesting one.

Vince WIlliams, based on what I have seen, is a solid linebacker who will rotate in situationally. The seven-year vet has 21 tackles so far on the season. Interestingly his brother is Karlos Williams, who had a really promising rookie rushing campaign with the Buffalo Bills in 2015 and then never played another down. Also, the Williams brothers are related to Chargers’ safety Derwin James.

More than being relevant for the Colts, this was just a cool play

Bud Dupree took advantage of the only NFL franchise to be listed as a farm team for the XFL, ducked under the block, and tackled Mark Walton perfectly. It was a great play for the University of Kentucky alum.

May not be repeatable

I’m not sure that we can just count on the Colts to be able to use the screen game consistently and effectively but the thing I did want to note is number 26, linebacker Mark Barron. He allows himself to be blocked by the same man that whiffed hard on Bud Dupree above. It isn’t a great look.

This linebacker corps isn’t a bad one but it’s also not one I’m really worried about as a Colts fan. Outside linebackers Watt and Dupree will pose some challenges up front on passing downs and while Devin Bush Jr. looks promising, he is still a rookie starting in just his 8th professional game, he’s good but possibly exploitable. The talent these guys have in front of them by way of the defensive line allows these linebackers to flow more freely than they would if they played in any other city for any other team.

They aren’t a bad group but if he chooses to Jacoby Brissett will be able to feed the running backs and tight ends in this game as I don’t believe the Steelers have the right mix of talent and experience to cover those positions with any consistency.


Defensive Backs

On Monday night cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson played all 60 defensive snaps. Safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds did the same. On Sunday you might notice corners Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton some as well.

After trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers have seen an early return on their investment and have paired him with second-year pro Terrell Edmunds. Fitzpatrick’s addition has allowed both to be used in roles that play to their strengths and both have played well since the trade.

Nelson came to the Steelers by way of the Kansas City Chiefs via free agency. So far Nelson has played well, though most teams haven’t targeted the 26-year-old at the same rate that teams seem to be going at Joe Haden, and I see why.

Ryan Fitzpatrick killed Joe Haden with short in breaking routes

I could have shown you so many plays from this game of receivers taking advantage of Joe Haden. He didn’t get beat deep and he always seemed to be in position to make the stop but Haden wasn’t really in much of a position to deny anyone the ball. At this point it seems that Joe Haden is the weakest link in the secondary and I have to believe Frank Reich has something in mind to attack the veteran.

(Cue the Benny Hill theme)

The Dolphins are bad, but there’s something to say about a guy who is in the right place at the right time. I’m not exactly sure what that thing is, but Minkah was there when luck and gravity dropped that ball back to earth.

Notice the zone

I listed this for a few reasons. 1. The movement of the Steelers before the snap. This look is only effective if you sometimes blitz when giving this look so it’s something to watch for on Sunday and how Jacoby Brissett handles it could have a big impact. 2. The zone coverage. I noticed that the Steelers played some man to man but the impression I got was they were most successful when in a zone. 3. When it was 3rd and 6 or longer, on multiple occasions Pittsburgh was content to drop 8 defenders, rush three and make the offense throw short of the sticks and then rally to make the tackle. We might see Frank Reich convert a lot of 4th and 1’s on Sunday.

The DB blitz I mentioned

This wasn’t the only blitzing corner I noticed. There were many plays where Pittsburgh sent in a delayed blitzer from the secondary. The Colts have done a good job picking those kinds of things up, but given what we know about predictability and this defense, seeing these blitzes could instantly tell Brissett everything he needs to know about the defense. On the other hand, it could also cause him issues and force him to make mistakes. Getting the protection right this week is all the more important, knowing that the Steelers like to send the blitz.

Arm punt

I want to point out the stunt that the defensive line had drawn up and then the DB blitzing late. But I really just wanted to include Minkah Fitzpatrick’s second interception on the day. Also if I’m Brian Flores I’m pretty happy giving the ball back inside their own five. I’m guessing the Dolphins punter couldn’t have pinned them there on his own.


Final Thoughts:

This Steelers defense is talented. The defensive line is full of talent, the linebackers have promising pieces and the secondary is solid. All in all this defense is good without being great and they aren’t great despite their crazy number of forced turnovers. This Steelers team is beatable. Jacoby should be able to move the ball against them. Marlon Mack should have some room to run. T.Y. Hilton should be able to sit down in plenty of zones. This game is winnable but again, this Steelers team is better than their record and playing at home.

So far, based on what I’ve learned, I believe this game comes down to the health of James Conner and the Colts’ continued avoidance of turning the ball over.