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New-Look Third-Down Defense Pays Dividends for Steelers

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers were missing one of their key sub package defenders when they faced the Denver Broncos on Sunday, with inside-outside, do-it-all cornerback Cam Sutton on the shelf with groin injury.

In response, the Steelers used a mixed-up group of personnel in the secondary on sub packages, with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Karl Joseph, Arthur Maulet, James Pierre and Tre Norwood all taking some of Sutton’s roles in the secondary.

The mixed-up group stuck together, and outside of one big play against Pierre — which he later got revenge for — the Steelers were able to hold the Broncos in check, particularly on third downs, when Denver finished just 2 for 12.

“We were just spreading Cam Sutton’s work around among a group of people as opposed to putting it on one person,” Tomlin said. “When you’re playing with some guys that are working in expanded roles that still have their special teams’ responsibility, for example, it’s good to spread the workload and that’s simply what we were doing, leaning on the individual strengths in terms of their style of play but just largely spreading the work around in an effort to minimize the absence of Cam Sutton.”

The Steelers also debuted a new-look front for that back end, pairing Cam Heyward with three outside linebackers in Alex Highsmith, Melvin Ingram and T.J. Watt, along with one off-ball linebacker in Robert Spillane.

“We know all three of those guys are rush-capable, but very rarely have we had all three guys going into a game or from a preparation of a game standpoint,” Tomlin said. “I think Buffalo was the last time that we went into a game like that so that’s something that we have been intent on get to go but you need a player availability to make that happen and so we had a good week with all three guys, talking about 90, 8 and 56, and we utilized all three of them on those possession downs to get a top-quality rush.”

The group didn’t get a ton of pressure on Denver quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The team’s two sacks came from Henry Mondeaux in the base defense and Devin Bush on a blitz. Watt had two hits on Bridgewater, but mostly what the front four in the new-look Dime did was occupy more than just the five Denver linemen.

“They were committed to protecting their passer,” Tomlin said. “The running back and tight end were in a bunch on third down, but we didn’t mind that because if [Noah] Fant is protecting, then he’s not running routes and we were OK with that. … They were trying to neutralize our four- man rush with tight ends and running backs and so that gave us an advantage in the routes, if you will, seven versus three vertical runners and so we were able to win a lot of those possession downs.”

The Steelers contrasted the Broncos’ third-down futility with one of their best efforts of the season, with the Pittsburgh offense converting 7 of 12 (58.3%). That allowed the Steelers to seize a six-minute time of possession advantage.

“It’s always nice when we’re clicking on two or all three phases of the game,” Watt said. “Today it felt like that.”

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