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Analysis

How Will Minkah Fitzpatrick Help Steelers’ Defense?

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The Pittsburgh Steelers trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick late on Monday night is a sign of new days in Pittsburgh.

A team that once was cautious and worried about the future had now, in a six-month span, traded up into the top ten of the NFL Draft for Devin Bush and traded a future first-round pick for a starting defensive back.

These are not the Steelers of old.

Many are going to question the decision and the timing, but there is no doubting the talent of Fitzpatrick.

The Dolphins gave him most of his rookie salary up-front with a signing bonus. This will put Fitzpatrick on the books for $6 million over the next three seasons. That is much cheaper than any first-round pick, and draft picks are much cheaper than veterans. It is not often an impact player with three years of cheap cost becomes available.

Furthermore, the Steelers have a poor track record of drafting in the defensive backfield, and Fitzpatrick is an established NFL player who put in a strong rookie season. There are no sure things like him in the draft.

Even better, his skillset fits with most of the questions surrounding the Steelers defense.

COMMUNICATION ISSUES

The biggest issue for Pittsburgh this year has been the same issue for a while now. They have communication breakdowns. Ryan Shazier helped in this area in a huge way, and without him, the Steelers have yet to find an answer. When the Steelers drafted Terrell Edmunds, they mentioned his communication ability is his biggest asset.

“We got a sharp, young, versatile guy who’s a very good communicator that plays physically” Tomlin noted of Edmunds after the draft.

On top of that, Bush was drafted with the intentions that he would take over the Shazier role as a play-caller. The ripple effect of Bush calling plays would be critical. With Bush in the middle and Edmunds on the back-end, the team anticipated communication issues to end.

It is early for Bush, but he has not stepped into the play-calling role yet. Week 1, T.J. Watt called the plays. The Patriots scored both times Watt was off the field. On Sunday, Vince Williams called plays and left the game in the first quarter with an injury. This left Mark Barron taking the role for the first time in defense he is just learning as well.

Fitzpatrick got on the field as a freshman at Alabama. That says something. He called plays as a “star” linebacker in the Alabama defense, which many note is as complex, if not more than NFL defenses. Not only did Fitzpatrick excel in this role, he left campus with a nickname of “Saban’s son” as head coach Nick Saban raved about his attention to detail.

Bush, Fitzpatrick and Watt should set a culture of young, high-upside athletic talents who take pride in their work ethic, detail, and understanding. Fitzpatrick could step in and help with play calls, or at least in the relay of identifying plays before the snap in the back end. The fact that he picked things up quickly at Alabama makes one think he could come in quick on the fly.

SPLASH PLAYS

In two weeks, the Steelers have allowed 10 passes of 20 yards or more. That is tied with Miami and Baltimore for the third-worst rate, trailing only Oakland and Miami. It does not help when Tom Brady and Russell Wilson are on the other side. However, the big plays have to stop. The defense played relatively well on Sunday, recording four sacks and creating two turnovers. The big plays killed them.

An injury to Sean Davis has not helped. It left the team starting Kam Kelly, a former cornerback in the AAF, at free safety against Brady in Week 1. Brady picked his spots and showed why Kelly has a long way to go. On Sunday, Davis came back but looked frustrated as he consistently saw passes completed in front, or next to him. He had a few strong hits, but could not break up any passes and left the game with another injury, this time to his shoulder.

Shuffling the last line of defense in the first two weeks is never going to go well, especially against experienced quarterbacks.

When healthy, Davis won’t get completely benched, as Fitzpatrick is versatile. However, his role will be reduced. Free safety is the most likely spot for Fitzpatrick to fit in on a down-per-down basis. With added communication at all levels, the splash plays should be reduced.

DEFEND THE SLOT

An injury to Davis and the growth remaining for Bush are understandable. However, the Steelers inability to defend the middle of the field has to be their most frustrating downfall to date. This goes back years from Julian Edelman and all of his big games to Keenan Allen last season. The Steelers were once a team that dominated the middle of the field with physicality. With new rule changes, the middle of the field is much more wide open, and the team has been slow to adopt. Is it surprising that Saban had Fitzpatrick in roles at Alabama that would become valuable in the future of the NFL?

It was not a surprise that the Patriots, a team that has mastered opening up the middle of the field, had their way with Pittsburgh. However, the most damning situation was as the Patriots went with an empty set, and the Steelers could not react. In the play below you can see that Rex Burkhead and James Devlin are lined up out wide with Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon in the slot. The Steelers kept their cornerbacks on the outside on the backs and saw their inside linebackers matched up with two talented wide receivers. These are schematic breakdowns that show the team is still not adjusting quickly enough.

This is a tough decision because with a full back and running back, you want your linebackers in the game. However, the Steelers are not versatile enough to match up to teams in the box in these scenarios. Last season Fitzpatrick played 379 snaps in the slot, 281 on the outside, 166 at free safety, and 90 in the box. He is a strong run defender but can match up with anyone, anywhere.

If the Patriots motion a player into the slot, Fitzpatrick is there. if they force Fitzpatrick in the box to defend the run, he is there. If he has to chase tight ends, running backs and wide receivers out wide, it is not an issue.

In crunch time of Week 2, the Seahawks completed a 28-yard bomb to D.K. Metcalf to give them a two-score lead. Metcalf, who lined up outside throughout the game moved into the slot for the defining play. The Seahawks had been waiting for this one and knew they would get Metcalf away from Steven Nelson, who had an excellent day against the rookie.

The Seahawks got the matchup they wanted and the veteran quarterback knew the moment they lined up. Terrell Edmunds was lined up in man against Metcalf, which is a mismatch every time. Now, the Steelers can use Edmunds to bracket, but man up Fitzpatrick on Metcalf in the slot. Last season Fitzpatrick allowed a 53.4 passer rating in the slot, which led all cornerbacks.

You can see the versatility to defend the middle of the field and limit splash plays from Fitzpatrick with an interception of Tom Brady below.

Minkah 1 GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The Steelers have rotated Hilton to safety in the preseason to prepare this. When the Steelers see bigger slot players, Fitzpatrick can take him with Hilton over the top. Against smaller slot players, Hilton can resume his role with Fitzpatrick over the top. That will keep Edmunds away from wide receivers.

The Steelers also can show more dime looks. Davis, Edmunds, and Fitzpatrick can play in the box next to Barron or Bush while keeping Hilton on the field as well. That could result in fewer snaps for Vince Williams as well, as he was third in the rotation against New England and left Week 2 with an injury.

The Steelers needed defensive back help. They needed to keep the ship floating for Ben Roethlisberger to return and to get a fair assessment of Mason Rudolph. The team was not going to be able to draft a play caller, who plays multiple positions and defends the areas of the field the Steelers have struggled in the most. When you add in his age, control and contract the deal makes sense, even at the heavy price of a first round pick.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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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.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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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.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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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.

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