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.