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.
Film Study: Steelers Elusive, Gritty Receivers Exploit Titans Third-Down Defense
The Steelers came out of Tennessee with a close victory after a second-half that was marred with inconsistent play across the entire team.
However, the Steelers did finish the day with a significant offensive bright spot, going 13 of 18 on third downs on the day. Their ability to convert such third downs had to have some type of coherent plan behind it. So, just how did Randy Fichtner dial up a gameplan to take on the Titans’ defensive scheme and defeat it on third downs?
Steelers Go to Quick Passing Game on Third Down
The Steelers knew that the Titans love to run a few main concepts in their defensive playbook. On third down, these concepts are almost always Cover 2 Man or Tampa 2 coverage. The Titans have been running those coverages all year to try and take away that middle of the field. Against the Steelers, they really were trying to shut down the deep passes to Chase Claypool and flood the middle with traffic. As such, the Steelers went into their bag of tricks and countered with their quick passing game knowing they had receivers who could win after the catch.
The Steelers knew they could get man coverage or at the very least if it is against Cover 3, a massive cushion underneath. That allows Ben Roethlisberger to dial up this quick slant to Diontae Johnson, who has at least a ten-yard cushion. With the Titans scared of the deep ball, Roethlisberger is able to hit Johnson in stride on a quick slant, and Johnson uses his YAC skills to win in the open field for a huge first down on the opening drive. Not many players are as shifty as Johnson in the open field, and the Steelers offense is better by having Johnson in the lineup because they can dial up plays like this.
The Steelers look like they get their 2-high coverage on this play, but in reality, the Titans are just disguising man coverage across the board. Claypool comes in motion, and while no one follows him across the formation, Kevin Byard steps up as an exchange of responsibilities occurs. Now the man that was on Claypool becomes a free blitzer. However, Roethlisberger’s hot check is Johnson is not only is playing with a hefty cushion, but Claypool’s corner route takes Byard out of the play. Roethlisberger hits Johnson on the quick in-route, and Johnson again uses his great change of direction and quickness to force a missed tackle and a touchdown.
The rare attempt where the quick passing game almost worked, but it fails. The Titans come out with a slight adjustment as they roll into their man free coverage. There is one single-high safety, and it allows star safety Kevin Byard to either blitz Roethlisberger or takes away those middle of the field YAC opportunities with the cornerback staying disciplined and holding the outside cutback lane. As such, while Johnson gets about seven or eight yards, Byard gets the backside pursuit tackle. It is a nice adjustment by Mike Vrabel at this stage of the game.
The Steelers realize they are going to get a lot of Cover 2 man looks, and as such, they go back to their bunch set to create blocks and traffic. for easy first downs. They have been fantastic at using this bunch set to take advantage of the man coverage looks that defenses like to use on third and short. Both Claypool and Ebron throw solid blocks that allow JuJu Smith-Schuster to get the perimeter. Smith-Schuster uses his physicality and strength to fight for more yards and secure the first down. It is the presence of these YAC receivers, whether they are gritty or elusive, that allows Fichtner to call up plays like this one.
The Titans are running a full-on blitz to stop the run here. However, notice how they back off to still have enough in their arsenal to defend the deep pass. The tight alignment gives Smith-Schuster space to work into wherever his route carries him, and more importantly, he is masked behind the run. Some hand-fighting ensues, and Smith-Schuster uses his strong frame to gain a step of separation for a key first-down. Yet again, the Steelers hit the Titans with another man coverage beater.
Even on this play, the Titans roll back into their Tampa 2 coverage, which they relied on heavily in more third and long situations. That is the exact coverage that Roethlisberger’s last interception came off. However, the Steelers chose to attack it underneath instead and let their YAC receivers try to fight and grind out the yards necessary to get the first down. Smith-Schuster takes a shot and ends spinning forward in the air to the first-down marker. Yet again, a great effort by even getting there.
The Steelers had some rocky moments against the Titans offensively, there is no doubt about it. Still, their third-down efficiency was great to see, and it was a gameplan that allowed their YAC receivers to flourish, unlike any other game they have had this season. The beauty of the Steelers offense is that they are so flexible and versatile. With the weapons they have, this offense can beat opposing defenses in multiple ways on any given Sunday.
Film Study: Robert Spillane Impressive Filling in for Devin Bush
Devin Bush is done for the season.
In a tough blow for the Steelers defense, the Steelers will be without their speedy, athletic linebacker until 2021, assuming multiple media reports that Bush will require ACL surgery after his injury in the Steelers’ rout of the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
As such, it leaves a huge void for the Steelers, who did not address the linebacker position in the 2020 NFL Draft or free agency.
The man that stepped in for Bush was for undrafted free agent Robert Spillane out of Western Michigan. Stylistically, there is nothing similar between the two. Spillane is an outstanding special teamer, but could he make the leap to the defense?
Robert Spillane Solid on Sunday
Spillane came into the game late in the second quarter, so there is an entire half of tape out there on him now. With five tackles and one of those for a loss, it was a decent game for Spillane filling for Bush. In fact, the Steelers’ defense seemingly did not miss a beat with Spillane instead of Bush, as they blanked the Browns in the second half.
Overall, this is a nice play by Spillane. While Kareem Hunt does end up wrestling forward ever so slightly for the first down, Spillane showcases three qualities that make this play encouraging. For one, he recognizes the screen and is in a great position to help at the second level as a result. Processing through his keys to see that is the first step for any linebacker wanting to get onto an NFL field. Second, he takes a direct angle to Hunt. Even with Spillane’s only modest speed, this angle is more than good enough to cut off Hunt’s lane. Lastly, Spillane does a nice job of breaking down and bringing the hammer down on Hunt. While the Browns do get the first down, it only ends up being a five-yard gain, and Hunt is no easy player to bring down in the open field.
This is Spillane’s best play of the day. If fans know nothing else about Spillane coming out of this game, it is that Spillane loves to hit. He had a few shots where he just laid the wood on guys. Austin Hooper was the benefactor of two of those unfortunate big shots. What is more impressive about this play is how Spillane sees right through the misdirection. The Browns are running a play-action off of outside zone concepts while Hooper sneaks around as the H-Back. This could easily be a split zone run heading the other way. Either way, Spillane key reads Hooper, scrapes back over the defensive line, and pastes Hooper right as he catches it. That is a high football IQ play.
Avoiding blocks and shedding them was something that Spillane was good at for most of the game, but this is one block that he has to avoid. The lineman just chop blocks Spillane and takes him out. Whether he has to sidestep the lineman or dip to avoid the block and make the tackle, a downhill linebacker like Spillane hopefully makes this play more often than not. Credit where credit is due, this is a nice block by JC Tretter, but Spillane needs to avoid the trash and chop blocks. Spillane keeps his head up and shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, just like they are taught. However, the saying to avoid cut blocks for linebackers in space is to “give ground to gain ground” by taking a few steps back to avoid the cut block. If Spillane follows that, he can avoid the block and make the tackle on Hooper comfortably in the open field.
Spillane puts on a master class on how to defeat a reach block at the second level here. He stuns the lineman with a strong punch to the chest, but extends out fully to keep himself clean. That gives him the ability to shed this block at any time when he wants to. He rips down to shed the block and successfully executes a stack and shed. Then, he makes the tackle at the second level. Taking on blocks at the second level is huge for any linebacker nowadays, and this was a great, strong run fit.
There is zero doubt that Spillane’s first snaps are encouraging. From this perspective, it is clear he knows what he is seeing and that he works downhill more than fine. Despite not being the greatest athlete, Spillane’s hot motor can make up for that shortcoming at times. However, everything was mostly under him and he did not get tested that much in coverage, especially up the seam. While it was a good first impression for Spillane, his coverage ability will be a question mark that has to be answered in the coming weeks.
Scouting Report: Browns Rushing Attack, Play Action Create Potent Offense
The Steelers and Browns will clash on Sunday in a battle of two four-win teams looking for better positioning in the AFC North divisional race. Despite tensions between the two teams, at its core, this is a very important game with further implications for the rest of the season. For the Steelers, they have a pivotal three-game stretch starting this week. With the Steelers looking for a win at home, what are they facing in the Browns?
Kevin Stefanski came into Cleveland and made two things the bread and butter of this Browns offense — a diverse rushing attacking and play action. When under center, in particular, the Browns run almost some variation of the two out of a multitude of looks. Thus far on the season, the Browns have found success with the best rushing attack in the NFL. However, they will be missing Nick Chubb and starting guard Wyatt Teller on Sunday, which could put a dent in this plan for the Browns. Still, it has been the foundation of an offensive attack that has taken the stress off the shoulders of Baker Mayfield and onto the shoulders of defenses who have deal with a confusing amount of keys to read through.
The original part of Stefanski’s scheme was that it was an outside zone scheme. Coming over from the Vikings, Stefanski’s mold was all wide zone action with some inside zone mixed in. However, much like Sean McVay and others from a similar branch as Stefanski, these coaches have started to put in more gap concepts. Last week against the Colts, that is exactly what made it so hard for the Colts to stop the potent running game. Not only were they getting blown off the ball, but the same look had three or four different schemes that could be run out of it. Pullers in particular are prominent out of this Browns scheme and it gives the ability to really work off play-action and RPOs out of the shotgun whenever they wish to make that distinction.
However, this has been the real star of the Browns passing attack. Not only do the Browns use play-action, but it often on rollouts. They give Mayfield multiple reads at different levels of the field to process and use his mobility to the biggest possible extent. Every team not named the Ravens has fallen victim to the bootleg game from this offense, and it is largely because they are keying in hard on the rushing attack that has gashed them all game. It is a delightful series of shot plays, levels concepts, and traffic building concepts that the Browns can use in 11 personnel, 12 personnel, and most other places when operating under center.
One thing the Browns have not used a whole lot of but have flirted with is an empty package. Now, it has not been used on film enough to say the definitive concepts they have out of this package, but the goal is to spread out teams, get chips in on pass rushers, and attack them as a result. The Steelers could very well see this as the Browns may go to a more up-tempo, quick passing game to try and set up their rushing attack before finally working through the ground game thanks to the Steelers pass rush.
As for the Browns defense, they run a 4-3 scheme that heavily relies on their pass rush upfront. The defensive line likes to slant and get upfield with aggressiveness. That has long been a philosophy of Joe Woods. The ‘under’ set is a staple of the Woods scheme, and he uses both a 3-4 under and 4-3 under. The biggest key to the scheme up front is how he uses Myles Garrett. Garrett is not a stationary edge, but rather a guy who moves around the defensive formation along the front and finds mismatches. This includes acting almost as a spinner right up over the guard or center at times to take advantage of Garrett’s explosiveness. On the back end of the defense, Woods often runs lots of Cover 3 and Quarters concepts, but it is a fluid coverage situation given his secondary.
Players to Watch
QB Baker Mayfield
Mayfield is off to a good start to the season. The gunslinger and outspoken quarterback has been throwing bullets and has a growing rapport with his receivers. Most impressive has been those tight-window throws that he has pulled off. However, Mayfield has sailed a few passes and his accuracy has not been great. The one game he was tasked to put the game on his shoulders and stage a comeback, he fell flat against the Ravens. With a rib injury to boot, the Steelers will want to put the game into the hands of Mayfield and make him prove that he can beat them.
WR Odell Beckham Jr
The number one receiver of the Browns, Beckham Jr is still a Top-10 receiver in the NFL. As one of the best route runners in the NFL, Beckham is a consistent mismatch that the Steelers secondary will have to deal with. He can win at all three levels of the field and has the suddenness and speed to be dangerous after the catch and in the open field. Having a nice, sure-handed complement in Jarvis Landry does not hurt either for the talented Beckham Jr.
DE Myles Garrett
Make no mistake, Garrett is the most important player to watch in this game bar none. Garrett has been the force that has churned an opportunistic Browns defense. No, they have not been great, but Garrett’s unreal blend of length, speed, explosiveness, flexibility, and mental aptitude makes him a ticking time bomb waiting to happen. The Steelers will need to know where he is at all times and plan accordingly for that gameplan.
Matchup to Watch
Myles Garrett vs Steelers offensive line
There is no more important match up than this one right here. Garrett has been the one guy keeping the Browns defense truly afloat. The Browns have multiple injuries in the secondary that will affect them this week, and that means Garrett’s ability to get pressure and force errant throws will be even more important. Rookie Kevin Dotson must stay alert in case Garrett lines up directly over him on the interior. Both Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwuma Okorafor have to make a big stand as well against Garrett. He will get pressure, but they need to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright and allow him lanes to escape the pocket away from the dangerous Garrett.