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Film Study: Steelers Motion Scheme Providing Important, if Not Obvious Advantages

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The Steelers’ running game figured to get a decent facelift this offseason with the addition of new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to the team’s offensive braintrust.

While the addition of a quarterbacks coach helping the running game might seem somewhat nonsensical at first, it’s more about a significant philosophy that Canada brought with him from the college ranks that can impact both passing and running downs.

What Canada did as offensive coordinator at places like Pitt, LSU and Maryland was leverage pre-snap shifts and at-snap motion to force defenses into revealing their coverage scheme to the quarterback, create mismatches and get defenders out of their optimal alignments.

Here’s a play from Canada’s time at Pitt in 2016 as an example. Closely watch Virginia’s right inside linebacker, No. 51. He takes a crabbing step to his right as Quadree Henderson comes back across the formation before flowing to the hole behind Pitt’s right guard. As a result of that slight hesitation, he meets James Conner at an angle instead of more head-on and can’t make the tackle, turning a 4-yard gain into a 14-yard gain.

While there’s some shoddy technique all around from the Virginia linebackers on that play, the same concept of the motion causing a delayed reaction or a slight misstep in the defense, particularly linebackers, can work in the NFL.

Here’s a play from the Steelers’ Week 3 win over the Houston Texans. The Steelers are in 11 personnel and Houston is in a type of a 3-3-5 Nickel alignment, with cornerback A.J. Moore lined up as a strong safety, strong safety Eric Murray over JuJu Smith-Schuster far to the field and free safety Justin Reid playing center field. The play is a power run to the right for James Conner.

Diontae Johnson goes in motion across the formation at the snap, and cornerback Bradley Roby goes with him, leaving Murray alone with Smith-Schuster on the outside. This is a mismatch, and Murray seems to know it, immediately giving three yards as Smith-Schuster comes out of his stance before reacting to it being a running play. The extra distance takes Murray farther from the ball and makes it easier for Smith-Schuster to block him in space.

Murray isn’t the only player impacted by the motion on the Houston defense. Middle linebacker Tyrell Adams comes crashing forward at the snap, and then has to backtrack ever so slightly in order to loop around the left side of his line and fill an outside gap. The Steelers never end up blocking Adams, with Conner forcing him to fill the gap outside pulling tight end Vance McDonald before cutting it back inside of pulling guard Matt Feiler.

Adams’ extra step forward doesn’t look like a lot, but imagine how the end of this play would have changed if he was a stride ahead of Conner in getting outside the formation.

“As human beings and football players, especially defensively, we’re reactionary, and vision has a lot to do with that reaction,” McDonald said on Thursday. “It’s the dominant sense, obviously, that they’re using, especially at linebacker, and so not only are they lining their defense up, echoing and giving calls out, but they’re having to watch all this at the same time, all the film study and everything they do beforehand, that’s good for going into that game all accounts for something that can distract them, something that can pull them away from their gap, even if it’s a half step. You know, the saying goes in football, a blade of grass is a blade of grass, and we need every every one of them.”

Similarly, Reid’s first two steps were to his right, along with the motion of Johnson, which can be clearly seen from the end zone angle. Since it’s Reid that ends up making the tackle after Conner cuts inside, it’s safe to say those two steps gave the Steelers a yard or two.

The Steelers have be doing a lot of the type of motion seen in these plays. According to Seth Walder of ESPN, they’ve had motion at the snap 18.8% of the time this season, which is the sixth-most in the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens lead the league with 37.5% at-snap motions. Interestingly enough, of the six teams that use the most at-snap motion, the Steelers, Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers have started the season undefeated, the Ravens and Los Angeles Rams have one loss and only 1-3 Washington (21.2% at-snap motion) is below .500.

So far, the Steelers proclivity for pre-snap motions and shifts have not created a host of missed assignments or obviously blown coverages by opposing defenses. But the benefits are there, and even if they don’t come especially frequently, they provide more than enough reason to continue the program.

“Even if it’s one snap out of … 65 for offense, that a defensive player is out of a gap, or they’re half a second slower to that responsibility, it’s an edge for us,” McDonald said. “So I think, honestly, for me, my own personal opinion, we could do even more of it.”

Film Study

Film Study: Robert Spillane Impressive Filling in for Devin Bush

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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.

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Film Study

Scouting Report: Browns Rushing Attack, Play Action Create Potent Offense

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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?

Browns’ Schemes

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.

 

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Film Study

Film Study: Terrell Edmunds Off to Promising Start in Year 3

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The player that fans wished to see a big leap from in the 2020 season was undoubtedly Terrell Edmunds. Largely considered a reach when he was picked 28th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, Edmunds has kicked off his NFL career with a rocky start. Despite racking up swaths of tackles, including second-most on the Steelers in 2019, he has lacked the ability to create splash plays. Through two seasons, Edmunds had only one interception and one fumble recovery. In 2020, Edmunds still has not forced any turnovers, but he has played at a higher level than ever before. Where has he taken the leap and what does this mean for Edmunds in the future?

Terrell Edmunds Starting Off Strong

The most important part of Edmunds’ leap has been his coverage against tight ends. So far on the season, Edmunds has faced Evan Engram, Noah Fant, Jordan Akins, and Zach Ertz. When all is said and done, that is a formidable slate that Edmunds had to go through. It would stand to say that he has been impressive as a result. SteelersNow charted Edmunds’ stats when in man coverage against tight ends, and it was very promising:

Week 1 vs Evan Engram: 2 targets, 0 receptions, 0 yards

Week 2 vs Noah Fant: 0 receptions, 0 yards

Week 3 vs Jordan Akins: 0 receptions, 0 yards

Week 5 Vs Zach Ertz: 1 Target, 1 reception, 7 yards

Tight ends are just getting clamped by Edmunds, but teams are not even daring to target him. That is the high level of coverage that Edmunds has brought to the table in that role. The Steelers’ defense has a reliable player that can go toe-to-toe with tight ends and shut them out in man-to-man coverage. Zone coverage is another thing altogether, and in Week 2 against the Broncos, Edmunds blew some coverage assignments. In the past two weeks, however, Edmunds has cleaned that up quite nicely.

Part of why Edmunds can function so well against tight ends is that his physical skillset is perfect for them. Against receivers, they are smooth and quick. Edmunds has some noticeable tightness in his hips and it makes it tough for him to change direction, but tight ends are simply not quick enough in and out of their breaks to juke Edmunds out. Add in the fact that Edmunds has improved his eye discipline and it makes sense that he has been great covering tight ends. Against Fant here, Edmunds does a great job of staying square and plating his eyes through Fant’s hips. Once Fant declares a direction, Edmunds mirrors that and closes the gap. That is solid coverage by Edmunds.

Even more important is that tight ends are getting faster by the day. Edmunds has length, size, physicality, and speed to keep up with these speed demons up the seam and field. Fant ran a 4.49 at the combine and on this play, Edmunds does an excellent job mirroring Fant’s movements and staying right in stride with him. If the ball does come, Edmunds would be in an excellent spot to bat it away given there is no separation here at all for Fant on the fade route. Yet again, this is the eye discipline of Edmunds showing up.

The Steelers disguise the slot blitz here as Edmunds acts as the cap defender once Hilton heads off to blitz. The basics of the safety position are shown off here. Edmunds slowly creeps down so that Greg Ward does not have an overwhelming cushion him in a short-yardage situation. That pre-snap alignment puts Edmunds in the perfect position to stay square, read Ward’s hips, and mirror his movements. Once Ward declares the in-break on the route, Edmunds drives on the catch point. One of the things he did not do well enough last year was drive on the football and the catch point, but this is a great example of his improvement there. As a result, Edmunds forces an incomplete pass on the hot route.

The best part of Edmunds’ game has always been his ability to make key run fits in the box. Regardless of his improvements in coverage, Edmunds’ best spot is in the box and working downhill to make these run stops. Against the Eagles, this is the best run fit of the day for him. The interior offensive line does a fantastic job of clearing out the A-Gap and it gives Sanders a sizeable hole if Edmunds does not scrape over the top and make that fit. Edmunds, however, reads the flow of the blocking scheme, makes that fit, and as such, the tackle. That is a great individual play and really solid instincts.

Going forward, Edmunds needs to continue to improve in coverage. His role of shutting down tight ends in man coverage is one that will be valuable to the Steelers given the quality tight ends they will face down the stretch of the season. Zone coverage is still something that is coming his way. However, Edmunds has played well early in the season and most certainly has played a step up from his 2019 tape.

 

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