For much of the season, and for all of their win streak, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense has done a great job not allowing the big play. Secondary keeping a lid on things, not getting beat over the top, and forcing offenses to march down the field with precise, efficient drives.
Thursday’s loss to the Cleveland Browns painted a different picture. Two of Cleveland’s touchdowns came on the backs of a 40+ yard completion. So what happened? The answer is simple and one common to giving up chunk yards. No matter the talent on the field, if you don’t communicate properly, you won’t win at this level.
Let’s check out the 43 yard near-touchdown allowed to Odell Beckham Jr. on the Browns first drive. We’ll then show an example of how the play was supposed to work.
1st and 10, ball on the Steelers’ 43. Cleveland comes out in a 3×1 bunch look to the field side. Playaction, Baker Mayfield hits OBJ on a post with Steven Nelson trailing behind.
Issue here is with Mike Hilton. He gets suckered in by the playaction and fails to carry #2 vertical. That forces FS Minkah Fitzpatrick to pick him up, abandoning his spot as the post/high defender, and leaving Nelson 1v1 with Beckham Jr.
Nelson is playing with outside leverage to defend any out-breaking route. When Beckham breaks inside, Nelson is out-leveraged and with him no longer having help in the middle of the field, doesn’t have much of a chance to make the play against a well-thrown Mayfield pass. At least credit to Nelson for getting him on the ground and giving the defense a chance to make another stop, even if they didn’t.
Same concept later in the quarter. Down, distances, and formation tells you the coverage is going to be the same. 1st and 10, ball on the Steelers’ 46, 3×1 bunch look to the field. Playaction, Mayfield looking for a deep shot.
This time, Hilton carries out his assignment and carries #2. Fitzpatrick is able to stay in center field and forced Mayfield to look for something other than Beckham Jr. to the middle of the field. He scrambles, rolls right, and chucks the ball away incomplete.
Hilton doing his job let Fitzpatrick do his. Failure to do so created a ripple effect in the defense and put Nelson in an almost-impossible spot. All led to the big completion and a play later, Mayfield pushing over the goal line for the score.
Hilton was arguably responsible for the other 40+ yard completion allowed later in the half, making this a game for forget for him. But to the broader point, this is what miscommunication, even on just one play, can do to a defense. Screws the whole plan up. If one guy fails, they all fail. And the Browns took advantage.