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Analysis

The Ripple Effect of Devin Bush Calling Plays

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Devin Bush started off rookie minicamp with all of the praise and discussion that went along with him being a top-ten pick. His peers talked about the way he goes about his business, while the coaches and media raved about his ability to call plays, despite just being handed a playbook.

“Right or wrong, I was just being vocal and trusting what I see,” Bush said. “I’ve got quite a bit to learn. I just have to know how to speak the language of the defense and get caught up on all my plays. … I know concepts about the style of defense that we’re trying to run, I just have to learn the language.”

His proactive nature and instincts are what drew the Steelers to Bush, and while he even admitted to a mistake here and there, he wanted to set the tone and show that he had no issues being vocal and that with a few weeks learning this playbook, he will be calling out everything as expected.

The Steelers traded into the top 10 because they feel that Bush has the speed and athleticism to replace Ryan Shazier. However, for as big of a loss the speed was with Shazier, it was arguably just as devastating to lose their play caller, and a player who had no issue calling an audible and setting his defense up based on what he sees.

It may take Bush some time, but the team certainly sees Bush taking on that role as a play caller-something he did at Michigan-sooner than later.

Bush stepping into a role as a play caller with similar speed to Shazier goes a long way in the defense taking a step forward. However, it is the ripple effect of Bush sliding into that role that makes him so valuable.

Last season was the first season that Vince Williams was asked to call the plays. Williams went from a special teams player and sixth-round pick to the quarterback of the Steelers defense. It showed tremendous growth for Williams, and his performance against the New England Patriots, playing every snap, mostly as the only linebacker on the field while getting his team in-line to hold the Super Bowl Champions to 10 points was easily the highlight game of his career.

However, that came at the end of a challenging season which showed that Williams may be in a bit over his head with the extra responsibility.

After an 0-1-1 start to the season, defensive coordinator Keith Butler admitted that the defense was not being communicated effectively enough and needed to be simplified.

“I hope it’s simple enough for where they can run the defense and there wouldn’t be a problem,” said Butler before the Steelers Week 3 Monday Night win at Tampa Bay. “Not that we had a bunch of these in-game, but we did have some guys running free a couple times. You saw a guy go down the middle, that was a lack of communication on the field. We have to do a better job of that.”

While they did get better over the course of the season, a team that was allowing under 18 points per game with Shazier in the lineup, allowed over 22 points per game the following season. Below, you can see the differences between when Ryan Shazier was on the field calling plays in 2017, compared to Williams calling plays in 2018. The defense was worse in every facet of the game. The biggest difference came in the passing game.

Ryan Shazier on field 2017 Vince Williams on field 2018
Run Success rate 41.0% 44.6%
Pass Success rate 46.8% 55.2%
Explosive Run % 5.0% 5.4%
Explosive Pass % 13.7% 15.8%
Turnover % 1.9% 1.0%
Sack % 9.9% 8.5%
Yards Per Carry 4.06 4.07
Yards Per Pass Attempt 7.35 8.12
*stats provided by The Quant Edge

While Williams still took strides as a player last season, taking the better version of Williams and putting him in a lesser role should help maximize his potential. Williams was always comfortable playing next to Shazier, let him make plays. If Bush can help now that Williams is a bit savvier himself, the duo could be better overall.

The Steelers also signed Mark Barron as their contingency plan in case a trade into the top ten not worked out. While Williams was taking strides replacing the mental side of Shazier, Barron was brought in to help replace some of what Shazier did in coverage.

As a former safety, Barron is a good bit faster than Williams and has always been a sound tackler who is average in coverage.

Now, with Bush in the mix, Barron goes from a player who was going to be asked to start to a specialty player, which is what Barron should be. On obvious passing downs, he can take Williams off the field while keeping two linebackers in the game, and he can provide a run-stuffing third safety in specific sub-package sets. It was clear last season that a starting role was a bit much for Barron, who lost snaps to Cory Littleton before being let go by the Rams. However, now Barron has the chance to be placed in a role that optimizes his skills.

If Bush can continue the groundwork that he laid in rookie minicamp and call plays, he will have helped upgrade three linebacker spots, all of which will play a role in the 2019 defense. Tracking how often Bush is calling plays, and in which situations will be important to watch. Once he masters those duties, the defense should be in great position moving forward.

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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Analysis

Film Study: James Pierre’s Size, Strength Provide Upside at Cornerback

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Coming into training camp, some undrafted free agents were on the radar to possibly make the Steelers at defensive back, where the team did not directly replaced departed veterans Artie Burns and Sean Davis.

A popular choice to make the team was undrafted slot corner Trajan Bandy, who ended up on the Steelers practice squad. The cornerback that came out of nowhere to make the roster was Florida Atlantic alum James Pierre. A near afterthought even after the Steelers signed him, Pierre showed up on the pool report every day against guys like James Washington and Chase Claypool. Pierre made plays on them, too. It was a healthy competition.

So, now that Pierre is on the roster, what are the Steelers really getting in this guy? Most importantly, what does his future outlook look like since he is likely buried on the bench?

Pierre’s Upside

Pierre mentioned in his press conference that he had one speed and that one speed was full speed. Pierre is 6-foot-2 and has great length. So, the physical fit is already rather striking right off the bat. Similar to Justin Layne, Pierre has the tools, and even though he bombed the combine, on tape, Pierre is a decent athlete. He is not a ‘wow’ player in terms of his athleticism, but it is sufficient, especially with how he plays the game.

The first thing that jumped out on his tape was his feistiness and willingness to do things that a lot of cornerbacks do not do: run support, tackling, and special teams. Pierre reaffirmed that, mentioning he wanted to help the Steelers anywhere they could, and it passes the eye test. Here on a cornerback blitz against Ohio State, Pierre is quite literally setting the edge on a read-option. That is a rare responsibility for a boundary corner, even one to the short side of the field. However, he does a fantastic job here to bring down Justin Fields with relative ease as well. Pierre can really tackle and is a physical player at the point of contact. It makes sense that the Steelers were drawn to Pierre for this reason. They expect their cornerbacks to be scrappy and help out in run defense and Pierre fits the bill.

This is where his size and strength come into play. UCF plays with weird wide receiver splits and this X-receiver has almost no room to work with on the sideline. Even still, Pierre does a fantastic job of using his hands to direct this route and control it. Even as the receiver swipes overhead, watch out how that speed turn is by Pierre. If that is thrown out of that break, Pierre has a chance to intercept that pass as he is in the hip pocket. He does almost surrender a catch on the scramble drill, but the initial stab and punch to the outside shoulder to divert any momentum from the receiver is what Pierre’s game is all about.

There are some issues with Pierre’s game. This is honestly not a bad rep by Pierre under all circumstances. It’s fine, he gets his hand knocked down while he has inside leverage and gets behind by a slight step. However, Pierre recovers quite well with a by marking his hand on that inside shoulder and staying in phase. He is in a position to make a play on this ball, but it is all a timing issue. Pierre actually jumps too early, misses a play on the ball, and as such this is caught. It would be nice to see Pierre get his head around even though he is in recovery mode. That comes down to composure and ball skills, which are two things Pierre needs to improve on. He dropped a few interceptions at training camp as well.

However, this is what it comes back to right here. The feistiness, the grit, and the passion Pierre plays with. It is going to land in the good graces of Mike Tomlin and the Steelers staff as long as he can do things like this on special teams and in practice. Pierre blows up a tight end here to make the tackle. Not many cornerbacks play with that strength or physicality but he does.

Pierre’s Outlook With the Steelers

It is a bit hard to frame what Pierre is going to be in his career. It all really comes back how he evolves in zone coverages and his composure in tough situations. There is a bit of a panic mechanic that Pierre induces when he gets beat off the line, even if he often recovers to be in a position to make the play. If he listens, learns, and works relentlessly to improve with these veterans in the room, however, Pierre has a chance to be a real gem of a find for the Steelers.

For right now, expect him to be a feisty special teamer that defines what it means to be a Steelers cornerback going back to the Steel Curtain days. The inconsistencies on the boundary will hopefully begin to work themselves out as he gets more and more coaching time with Teryl Austin and Tom Bradley.

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