Cooper Kupp is having a breakout year. Averaging over seven receptions per game and leading the NFL in third-down receptions converted for first downs, Kupp has been the safety blanket of the Los Angelas Rams offense. So when the Steelers shut down Kupp for zero catches in their 17-12 win against the Rams it is noteworthy.
This is a team that has spent years getting torched by slot receivers. Now, whether it be Tyler Boyd, Keenan Allen or Kupp, the Steelers are shutting down the best in the game over the middle of the field. A lot of the credit goes to Mike Hilton, as he spent most of the day on Kupp. Still, as head coach Mike Tomlin noted, this was a group effort.
“We doubled him a lot,” Tomlin added. “He is the number one receiver in the NFL on third down. All our third-down discussions started there. Minimizing his ability to impact the game in the way and then working out from there.”
When looking at the snaps Kupp played, he saw a variety of looks and coverages as he moved down the field. The players who defended Kupp were as follows:
17 snaps Hilton with bracket/double team
11 snaps Hilton single coverage on Kupp
4 snaps Steven Nelson
3 snaps Devin Bush
2 snaps Mark Barron
2 snaps Joe Haden
1 snap Terrell Edmunds
1 snap Haden with bracket/double team
1 snap Mark Barron/Devin Bush double team
Early into the game, it was clear that Kupp was on the Steelers’ minds. Their first play was drawn to get creative in their defense of Kupp while forcing a throw elsewhere. Below, Hilton is over Kupp before the snap. However, Hilton blitzes and Edmunds shoots down from the safety spot into the box to defend Kupp. With pressure coming from Hilton, Goff never looks that way and throws it to the clean side.
Having Edmunds or Minkah Fitzpatrick drop into the box to defend Kupp was the main gameplan for the Steelers in this game. The Steelers showed two-high safeties often, and one of Edmunds or Minkah Fitzpatrick would play deep while the other would run into the box as the ball is snapped. In the picture below you can see Kupp double-teamed over the middle as Fitzpatrick drops into the middle of the field to take away Kupp.
A great example is the play below. You can see Haden is playing off coverage knowing that Fitzpatrick is showing he will be a deep safety, but in fact, he is shutting down the intermediate area where Kupp soaks up targets.
Again, the Steelers show two-deep, but with Steven Nelson deep pre-snap, Fitzpatrick drops into the box for the bracket.
Watch this play below in the red zone. Scheme can only take you so far, but to shut out a receiver like Kupp, you need talent. Watch Fitzpatrick chase down Kupp from the center fielder spot to swat this ball away at the last second. Having four eyes on Kupp for the majority of this game was the difference. When two of those eyes were Fitzpatrick, Kupp had no shot. When the Steelers traded for Fitzpatrick, 76% of passes to the middle of the field were successful, since then the number is down to 49%.
The Rams recognized that taking away the middle of the field was the staple of the Steelers game plan. The Rams tried to find ways to take advantage of schematically. Bunch formations were used to keep defenders tight together. Then, crossing routes and switches were designed to get separation near the line of scrimmage.
In the play below the Steelers match perfectly. Hilton is lined up over Kupp, but Robert Woods runs an inward breaking route. Hilton leaves Kupp to take the receiver matched up with him. Cam Sutton follows the tight end to the sideline, and Kupp is running free into open field. Of course, he is running into a bracket of Edmunds and Haden. Thanks to the strong communication in the back end each receiver was picked up with precision.
Watch Hilton towards the top of the screen on this play. He is over Woods in the slot. However, as the ball is snapped he shuffles to avoid getting picked by Woods. A pick would sping Kupp free in the short game. Hilton passes Woods off to Nelson behind him, and with Fitzpatrick once again bracketing and crashing down to the line, Kupp was effectively double-teamed.
This play got Woods wide open, but the pressure of the Steelers front was in Goff’s head by then. The Rams run two routes over the middle of the field, to make the defense have to declare. Bush and Barron doubled up on Kupp, who shot out of his stance. Woods was behind Kupp. After a chip block, Woods squirted free behind Bush and Barron. With Fitzpatrick seeing Kupp doubled he moved elsewhere. Sean McVay took advantage of all of the attention on Kupp but the play was too slow developing for Goff to have a chance. That is the type of day the Steelers defense was having.
Speaking of the pressure, that helped defend Kupp in more ways than one. Yes, Goff was erratic under pressure and could not hit his man. Also, the Rams resorted to Kupp chip blocking at times to slow down the pressure. In the play below, he helps re-route Bud Dupree, which slows his path to the quarterback down. One play of relief for Goff was worth Kupp getting to his route late. However, while it slowed down Dupree, Kupp was ineffective getting open after helping block. The Rams dedicated seven plays to Kupp blocking early and flaring late.
In the limited snaps Bush and Barron were manned up on Kupp, they squared their stance to defend the middle of the field, and push Kupp to the sidelines. They wanted Goff to make longer throws that took more time to develop, aiding the pass rush.
When Nelson was on Goff, the two were one-on-one on the outside, and Nelson handled his own. The play below is the final encapsulation of how well defended Kupp was. Hilton is lined up over Kupp, but with Haden on the outside, and none of the other routes breaking downfield, Haden took Kupp. Haden was well off coverage and picked up Kupp late. The scheme was excellent all day but plays like the Fitzpatrick break up early and the Haden break up here are what turned a well-schemed plan into a dynamic shut down of high-level talent.
Mike Hilton got and deserves a lot of credit for this performance. However, as Tomlin noted this was a group effort that took a dominant pass rush, coverage linebackers, two shut down corners, and two safeties who communicate well pre, and post-snap. This was a complete performance by a defense who made their name and found a signature win that put their team above .500.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.
At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.
But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.
They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.
“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.
“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”
Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.
Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.
“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”
Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back
The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.
Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger
The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.
On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.
On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.
The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.
This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.
Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.
There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.
The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.
This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.
Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.
“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.
Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.