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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

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

Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back

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The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.

Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger

The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.

 

On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.

On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.

The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.

This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.

Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.

 

 

 

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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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