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.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.
However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.
It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.
That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.
So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.
Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.
The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.
With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.
Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.
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.”
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.