This year, Matthew Sottile and I will break down the opposing team’s defense in our weekly scouting report. You can normally expect these every Friday but with the Monday night game, we waited until today. Like last year, I will be looking at the opposing team in a more broad, scheme-approach. Matthew will have a closer eye on the individual players.
Washington’s Front Seven
Like their offensive members, I like their defensive staff. Robb Akey is their DL coach, a fire, three-packs-a-day kind of scruffy voice, and a super fiery dude who helped revive an irrelevant Idaho team. Perry Fewell, a long-time coach and former DC of the New York Giants, is their DBs coach.
Against the run in 2015, the Redskins gave up 23 runs of 15+ yards, the 12th most in the league. Four of those went for 40+, tied for third most. They allowed 4.8 yards per rush, second worst to only the New Orleans Saints. Not good.
So unsurprisingly, the defensive line is arguably their biggest weakness. It looks like they are playing more three down (odd) fronts this year than last, though the personnel hasn’t really changed. Defensive ends are just standing up and becoming linebackers.
The projected DL from left to right: Ziggy Hood at left end, Kedric Golston at nose, and Kendall Reyes at right end. Golston showed up on the injury report and may not play while Reyes has been limited – but is likely to play. If Golston can’t do, I imagine Chris Baker will be the starting nose tackle. Ricky Jean-Francois is a versatile piece.
Ryan Kerrigan will be the starting LOLB. He’s one of the most underrated players in the league and has racked up at least eight sacks in all five of his seasons. He had 9.5 last year. Kerrigan also played 886 snaps (83.8%) a year ago, third most on their defense and the most of anyone in the front seven.
Opposite him will probably be Preston Smith, a kid I really liked coming out of college. He recorded eight sacks in just 508 snaps last season, his rookie year, and finished with five in the final three weeks.
Trent Murphy, switching back to OLB, will also be rotated in. He’s big, long, and will be an issue against the run.
Along the inside, as Matthew points out below, you have the duo of Mason Foster and Will Compton. Foster is the weakside linebacker, Compton to the strong side.
They seem to generally be a two-gapping team though will bring linebackers on blitzes, creating some slanting up front. It’s a unit the Steelers’ offensive line should beat up against the run.
Pressure wise, I saw very little evidence of it from Washington. Some occasional stunting up front, most often with their defensive linemen crossing into each other’s gaps, but they were mild in the regular season and preseason game I took in. They trust their group to get home and it’s one reason why Washington was middle-of-the-pack in sacks a year ago. I like their pass rushers and they pose a threat.
In 2015, Washington allowed 12 passes of 40+ yards, the same number as Pittsburgh. But they allowed 58 of 20+, one of the higher figures in the league and six more than the Steelers.
Collectively, this defense intercepted just 11 passes, bottom third in the NFL. But they forced 23 fumbles, fifth most in the NFL. Opposing offenses converted just 37.7% of third downs, much better than Pittsburgh’s 40%.
Josh Norman should do a good deal of shadowing Antonio Brown but when he isn’t, he’ll be at left corner. Bashaud Breeland is the right corner with #35, Dashaun Phillips in the nickel. Phillips is the unknown. He played only 13 defensive snaps last year, the only defensive snaps to his name, and has just one career tackle.
He’s not the biggest but tested exceptionally well at the Super Regional Combine in 2014. Ran a 4.48, jumped 39 inches in the vert, 10’3” in the broad, and turned in a 3.97 short shuttle.
The safeties are totally different from last year. Really, 4/5 of the secondary is new to a starting role in Washington – Breeland the only returner in the same spot. DeAngelo Hall is shifted to safety and Tomlin made the excellent point this may, in certain situations, let them stay in base against 11 personnel by shifting Hall to cover. David Bruton Jr, a guy I was a big fan of in Denver, signed with them and will start.
They replace Dashon Goldson and Kyshoen Jarrett, the latter suffering a serious neck injury and waived in July. He logged over 600 snaps a year ago. Goldson led the team with 968 snaps, or 91.6% of their total. They have talent to replace it but that is something I bet it’s an uprooting most teams – especially division winners – aren’t having to do.
Their depth is pretty nice. Quinton Dunbar is receiver-turned corner who was pretty successful last season, seeing time outside and in the slot. Big guy at 6’2. Greg Toler has been in the league for years while Kendall Fuller was their third round pick. Will Blackmon logged a lot of time last season and should be the backup safety.
Ok, schematics schematics. They’re a zone base team and will show it on early downs. Cover 3 is probably what dominates their secondary but I see a lot of Cover 2 as well, especially in 2nd/3rd 10+.
Quick look at both. The Cover 3 comes on 1st and 10 and the Cover 2 is on 2nd and 3.
On third down, especially third/medium to short, they’ll man up and play a lot of Cover 1. Here it is in Week 16 on 3rd and 5.
The problem seems to be they don’t do a great deal of pattern matching out of Cover 3 and are vulnerable to getting beat on four verts.
And when teams flood their Cover 3, like with a sail concept (fly/corner/flat), the corner defender is usually free. The fly route clears out the deep third corner and the flat holds the flat defender.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it does. Mimics the problems Pittsburgh has had over the years.
In obvious pass situations, I have seen them go to a 3-2-6 dime look. I’m not positive who the dime defender would be for them this year. Maybe Blackmon and perhaps Bruton slides down closer to the line, a role he occupied with Denver.
Once in that dime look, they ran an ILB twist – one of their few blitzes – and appeared to play trap coverage to both sides, jumping the #2 receiver out.
The problem you’ll see here is a communication breakdown. Check the top of the screen and you’ll see the slot corner carrying #1 vertically. To the bottom, they don’t, and #1 is loose down the left sideline. Unfortunately the pass is overthrown and incomplete. Because Sam Bradford. Have fun, Minnesota.
Washington Special Teams
David Bruton appears to be the upback on punts with Niles Paul on left wing, Sua’ Cravens on right wing. Phillips and Dunbar appear to be the gunners. TV tape makes a lot of special teams info difficult to discern.
Their top two special teamers, in terms of snaps, from last year are no longer on the team. FB Darrel Young and safety Jerod Johnson. Of players still with the team, Trent Murphy has the most snaps (220 – 48.2%).
Matthew’s Individual Breakdown
The Pittsburgh Steelers open their 2016 campaign against the revamped Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football. Much of Washington’s upgrade comes on the defensive side of the ball, adding key names such as CB Josh Norman, who was one of the vital pieces in the fearful Carolina Panthers’ defense a season ago. Let’s waste no time in looking at his week 1 game last year, against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
RB T.J. Yeldon runs out to the right pre-snap, as Norman recognizes this. The Panthers are playing a cover-3, and Norman is responsible for a deep third of the field. Although shutdown corners love having their hand at single man coverage, their playmaking abilities are on full display in zone; instincts begin to kick in, and talented players such as Norman, can do Norman-esque things.
Now, as many of you know, corners who are given the responsibility of a deep third of the field are reluctant (as they should be) to press a player on the line of scrimmage, or playing shallow routes towards the sideline; they’re focused on not getting beat over the top.
As soon as the ball is released by QB Blake Bortles, Norman has it located and is breaking; back foot planted, jolting his body towards the pigskin, he plucks it from the air and takes it back for six.
Norman’s instincts (or tape study, which is another huge component for elite defensive players), allows him to make the calculated gamble and take the risk, putting 6 on the board for his team, on what looks like a routine defensive play to the naked eye.
The Steelers, specifically QB Ben Roethlisberger, have to be weary of Norman, who earlier in the week has attempted to gain the psychological edge by starting a spat with WR Antonio Brown. It’ll be interesting to see if Antonio can get the better of Norman, who may not be taking such big risks against a WR who has proved he could run with the best of them. Historically, Normal has struggled against the tall, large wide receiver variation; most notably against Julio Jones last year. Let’s see how he fairs against a shifty AB.
Another players that need to be on the forefront of the Steelers’ mind is OLB Ryan Kerrigan, who has been known to cause a boatload of issues for any offensive line he comes across. His best game from 2015 was week 12 against the New York Giants, where he amounted a ridiculous 8 QB disruptions and 2 sacks.
Kerrigan gets after the quarterback quite often. Fingers in the ground, he charges 6’4” T Marshall Newhouse, who struggles as Kerrigan dips his right shoulder and puts the swim move on him.
Once he’s even with Newhouse, he’s gone. Nothing short of a hold will prevent Kerrigan get to QB Eli Manning, as he undoubtedly grabs a sack and forces the Giants to punt.
Unnerving for Steelers fans is the fact that Ben usually lines up in the shotgun position. RT Marcus Gilbert has been fighting an elbow injury, which won’t prevent him from playing, but will be giving him fits of pain during the game; Todd Haley is going to have to string together quick passes, like we saw and I wrote about during the first two possessions of their third preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. If not, it may be a long day for Gilbert and the Pittsburgh offense.
The middle of the field is guarded by interior linebackers Mason Foster and Will Compton. Foster, although struggled in pass coverage, proved to be a facilitator in the run game, while his counterpart simply struggled in both categories; he allowed a QB rating of 107 when targeted, and amounted many missed tackles throughout the season. This could be good news for second year TE Jesse James, who is looking to build a bit of momentum as he looks like be the next-man-up until the Ladarius Green situation is dealt with.
Rounding up the linebacking corpse is Preston Smith, who is looking to build on his impressive rookie season a year ago, in which he accumulated 8 sacks (which may sting the hearts of Steelers fans everywhere). Both Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert look to have their hands full all night long.
As Alex wrote about in the Scouting Report Primer, rookie Su’a Cravens will be all over the field, wearing many different hats across the defensive field. The front seven also includes a familiar face for Steelers fans; that of DE Ziggy Hood. As their front 7 struggled mightily throughout 2015, ranking in the bottom 5 for the year, the Redskins look to Hood to help propel the likes of Kerrigan and co. forward.
Lining up in their base 3-4 defense, Hood stands over the A gap between the center and the guard. Keeping with the theme, we see QB Tyrod Taylor in shotgun, as Kerrigan flies off the line and begins the charge Taylor. This forces Ben – I mean Taylor – to begin shifting within the pocket.
Two missed tackles open up a miniature lane towards Ziggy, who swallows him up to record is lone sack of the evening. Now, this play is more a result of Kerrigan’s motor and tenacity than it is Ziggy’s rushing abilities, although Ziggy did stay with his man, in his gap. That being said, I illustrate this play, and prior, as potential scenarios the Steelers could find themselves in come Monday night.
DE Chris Baker is a name to look out for, as he eats running backs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even though he played majority of his career at nose tackle, his switch to end seems to have yielded positive results; his run defense ranks him in the top five for 3-4 ends. Furthermore, 6 sacks and 3 forced fumbled aren’t to be overlooked, as he’s clearly turned into a catalyst on that defensive line; he uses all of his 6’2”, 320 lbs frame when gutting through offensive lines.
The body that clogs up the middle belongs to NT Kedric Golston, who is battling and a back injury that may keep him out of Monday night’s matchup. The Steelers know all too well what injuries could do to a team, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Redskins shift around in order to compensate.
There also exist a few variables; in which could also influence the direction of the game. Longtime cornerback DeAngelo Hall is making a switch to [Free] Safety, which will allow him to be more of a ball hawk, relying on the aforementioned instincts rather than run toe-to-toe with the Pittsburgh receivers.
Although all eyes will be on Antonio Brown and Josh Norman, there exists another player in that newly-formed cornerback tandem; CB Bashaud Breeland. As wide receiver Markus Wheaton is officially listed as out, attention turns to how wide receivers Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, and Darrius Heyward-Bey will be used. Breeland proved to be no slouch in his second year in the league, tipping 16 passes, and word is he’s been turning heads during training camp. The Steelers receivers will definitely be put to the test against this duo, as no yards will come easy.
CB Greg Toler has struggled mightily during his time with the Indianapolis Colts, being targeted quite frequently; his last matchup against the Steelers last year saw him targeted a total 10 times that resulted in an astonishing 6 catches that went for 126 yards and 2 touchdowns. I’m sure he’s still having nightmares about seeing Big Ben and co., as he’s clearly the weak link on an otherwise strong secondary.
Rounding off the secondary is SS David Bruton Jr., who has spent his entire career with the Denver Broncos as a backup. That being said, Bruton has always stood tall when his number was called, and looks to finally grab a starting role and make an impact early on in Monday night’s matchup.
In 2015, the defense as a whole held the opposition to 78/207 (38%) on 3rd down conversions, allowing an average of 380 yards/game of offense. As noted before, the front seven ranked in the bottom five of the league, yielding 27 total sacks; the team also added 11 interceptions. They also allowed 4.8 yards/play on runs, and 7.8 yards/play in the air. It’ll be interesting to see what Haley and co. can string together on Monday night, and if the offense can produce what we think they capable of.
P Tress Way punted 70 balls last year for an average of 46.1 yards, including 7 touchbacks and a long of 64. The coverage team and gunners allowed 30 returned punts for 258 total yards, averaging 8.6 yards/return. Steelers fans will also recognize yet another familiar face on 4th down- that of LB Terrence Garvin. Fans know just how vital his special teams play is, and they’ll be able to relive that – albeit in the wrong jersey, putting a beating on the good guys – for 60 minutes.
Conversely, the Redskins forced 68 punts that averaged 45.5 yards, 1 block, and 6 touchbacks. Opposing coverage units held the Redskins to 32 returned punts for 153 yards, averaging 4.8 yards/return.
It’ll be interesting to focus in on the gunner/vise battle, as more times than not, the advantage goes to the gunner because he’s able to see the ball’s direction in the air, whereas the vise (usually two played vs. the one gunner) is focused on the man infront of him. Either way, let’s hope the word “Peter” isn’t used sparingly, and they don’t run into an issue like they did in their final preseason game.