The Steelers ended up beating the Houston Texans 28-21 in a close, but hard-fought Week 3 victory. Most of that victory can be traced back to their second-half adjustments both on offense and defense. However, the first half of the game still is the cause of some worry. The Steelers defense was sliced apart for 21 points by Deshaun Watson and his talented group of pass-catchers. How did the Texans schematically attack the Steelers’ defense to really exploit them?
How the Texans Gave the Steelers Defense Issues
One of the big questions early in the season for a lot of people has been where is Minkah Fitzpatrick? The 2019 First-Team All-Pro has been quiet to really no fault of his own based on the film. In fact, if there is anything to harp on Fitzpatrick, it would be his tackling ability, but in coverage, he is doing everything he can. Teams are exploiting the Steelers scheme to take him out of plays. The Texans did that well.
The Steelers come out in a single-high coverage with Fitzpatrick as the deep safety. With their NFL leading blitz rate, the Steelers have been running a lot of straight man coverage thus far on the year. It makes a lot of sense, but when they do it as much as they do, it puts the secondary in tough spots. Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb run a post and crosser combination, which puts Fitzpatrick in a bind. Mike Hilton and Joe Haden are both playing outside leverage and are told to filter their guys to Fitzpatrick. The only issue is since Fitzpatrick will always take the deeper man, in this case, the post, Hilton ahs no one to feed Cobb to on this play, and he is wide open. This is how teams are taking Fitzpatrick out of plays. He always takes the deep route and they attack underneath in the man coverage. As a result, Fitzpatrick can not even drive on the ball to make a play. More importantly, if he ever does gamble, the offense has a chance at a touchdown. This is just one play that shows how the Steelers’ blitz rate is unsustainable. It helps a lot, but against elite quarterbacks like Watson, they can dice up the team better than the Jeff Driskels of the world.
Some parts of these struggles fall on Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler as a schematic issue. The Texans run a smash fade concept, but Watson simply misses an open Brandin Cooks. For one, Vince Williams should never be on Cooks. Once the defense saw that there should be an immediate check out of this Cover 2 coverage into something that gets the Steelers a far more advantageous matchup. That could be switching to quarters or some other specific counter the Steelers have to these 3×2 sets in their playbook. Butler can not let Williams and Devin Bush get one-on-one with receivers like this further on in the year. It is smart of the Texans to hold Terrell Edmunds with the tight end knowing he can not get back to Cooks like Fitzpatrick may be able to as well.
While the Steelers had some schematic issues that broke them down, the real key for Watson’s escapability. The Steelers secondary did a decent job of guarding these Texans receivers for the most part, but they can only cover them for so long. The pass rushers did not keep rush lane integrity and let Watson run around outside the pocket. This is one of the key areas that vastly improved in the second half. Watson had very little room to move then and as such the Texans faltered. However, one this play, the effects of extending the play are shown. The secondary has great coverage, but eventually, Jordan Akins breaks free from Hilton as Watson is extending the play.
If there is something to really point to for the struggles it would be Watson’s escapability. A key secondary factor is how the Texans took Fitzpatrick completely out of the game during blitz heavy situations. In the first half, the Steelers ran heavy man coverage, but in the second half, they softened it up with rotating zones. By pushing Fitzpatrick down into the middle of the field, Watson had to look over the top and horizontally to attack. However, the pass rush got home more frequently and made his time far harder than it was in the first half.