Stop the run, tackle the catch and don’t give up explosive plays. Does that sound familiar to any of you? It should, as that’s exactly what former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau always used to preach during the many years that he was with the organization as it relates to his overall philosophy of controlling the opponent’s offense.
Monday night in the Steelers regular season opener against the Washington Redskins, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler pretty much used the same philosophy that his predecessor did during his time in Pittsburgh and while not a perfect performance, the team won the game and in the process limited their opponent’s offense to just 16 points.
After the game was over, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins talked about what he saw from the Steelers defense during the game.
“Well, they were playing very soft,” Cousins said. “They did a good job of letting the underneath completions happen, but pretty much taking away anything for being chunks. And I think we saw that, aside from the one play to Desean [Jackson], we didn’t have many big chunk plays and that was probably one thing they did was just play patient and force us to take stuff underneath.”
Yep, that’s exactly what happened Monday night and while Cousins did complete 26 of the 35 passes that he threw less than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage during the game, only three of those completions resulted in gains of more than 15 yards.
Cousins stayed patient with that dink and dunk approach all throughout the first half of the game as he only threw deep once during the first 30 minutes of action and completed that throw to wide receiver DeSean Jackson for a gain of 33 yards.
In the second half, Cousins went deep five more times and while he did complete two of those passes, neither busted the 20-yard gain mark. One of the three second half deep throws was intercepted by linebacker Ryan Shazier and another resulted in a questionable pass interference call against Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell with 59-seconds remaining in the game.
Ahead of Monday night’s game, I wrote about how I believed the Steelers defense shouldn’t blitz Cousins very much Monday night due to his propensity to successful make quick reads and get the ball out short in a timely matter. As it turns out, Butler had the same line of thinking as you can see in the defensive charting numbers that Alex Kozora presented to you earlier Thursday.
The low percentage of times that Butler did blitz Cousins Monday night, rarely did those rushes included more than four Steelers players. In other words, Butler chose to play games with his blitzes and that included dropping several players into coverage.
“They were doing a good job all game of just dropping out, dropping out, forcing us to take things underneath and you just have to stay patient and keep taking that stuff for five or six yards at a time, and just continue to do that,” Cousins said after the game.
While Cousins did consistently take the underneath stuff that was given to him throughout Monday night’s game, he did it too much on third downs. According to our game charting, Cousins threw short of the chains 7 times on his 10 total 3rd down pass attempts during the game and while he completed 6 of those 7, only two of those resulted in first downs.
On Wednesday, Butler had his weekly segment on Steelers Nation Radio and he explained why he decided not to blitz Cousins very much during Monday night’s game
“We knew that going in they would try to base their game plan on what they’ve seen before from us, from previous years and stuff like that,” said Butler. “And there were certain routes that we felt like we were going to get from them and they stayed true to form looking for us to be in fire-zone sometimes and blitzes at other times. So, we tried to stay away from them as much as we can, as much as we could, because they were motioning, what we call motioning to empty, and trying to get us into a situation where they could take advantage of it and our guys handled it pretty well.”
While Butler’s defensive game plan Monday night ultimately worked well, outside of some poor tackling in the first half, his defense still only recorded just few quarterback pressures in addition to not registering a single sack of Cousins. Because of that and as you would expect, he said that needs to improve moving forward and especially on pass plays that don’t include his defense blitzing.
“We’d like to see a little bit better rush out of our four-man rush,” Butler said.