The Steelers’ 2020 Defensive Philosophy

4-3 or 3-4? Neither.

Okay people, let’s get one thing straight. Modern NFL defenses, of which the Steelers are a perfect example, no longer fit into neat categories like “4-3” and “3-4”.

Football teams field 11 men on defense. As I see it, the Steelers have nine (9) “starters”, with two open spots that fluctuate according to package:

  • DL (2): Heyward and Tuitt
  • Pass Rush (2): Dupree and Watt
  • ILB (1): Devin Bush
  • Box Safety (1): Edmunds
  • Deep Safety (1): Fitzpatrick
  • Corners (2): Haden and Nelson

The package players/backups include any (2) two of the following, plus extra snaps when a starter comes out:

  • DL: Alualu, Buggs, McCullers, or Wormley
  • Pass Rush: [FN]
  • ILB: Williams (heavy), Gilbert III (mobile), or an Edge Rusher falling back
  • Box Safety: Allen or Dangerfield
  • Deep Safety: Sutton or Dangerfield
  • Slot CB: Hilton or Sutton
  • Corner: Sutton or Layne

[FN] The extra pass rush specialists (Adeniyi, Skipper, and Highsmith) are pure backups who will not see the field in capacities because there are no packages. Their job may be super vital, but it is also hyper-specialized. Fans keep expecting these OLB’s to study the ILB position too, but it doesn’t seem to happen.

Two-Gapping Or Penetrating Up Front? Penetrating… For Now

Anyone who was around during the draft debates read more on this topic than s/he probably wanted. The distinction It really comes down to the fact that defensive football requires some front-7 players to do the dirty, discipline-oriented work that will in turn allow the remaining front-7 guys to reap the glory. One theory – “two-gapping” – asks the front line to effectively paralyze the offense line by controlling two offensive linemen at a time, leaving the second level to shoot through for the splash plays. The other approach – “one-gap penetration” – allocates more glory to the front-4, with the ILB level providing the discipline and doing the dirty cleanup work from behind. Neither of these is inherently better or worse. The 1970’s Steel Curtain was a penetration defense. The great Dick LeBeau units were two-gap defenses. Both approaches work.

Up until maybe 10 years ago people assumed that penetration based defenses would use a base 4-3, and two-gap defenses a base 3-4. That is no longer true. The Butler/Tomlin Steelers defense is based on front-line penetration, but that does not make it a 4-3. Modern hybrid defenses like Pittsburgh’s will two-gap from a 4-3 look, one-gap from a 3-4 look, and occasionally (as in Seattle) ask different linemen to do each.

That said, I have not read about teams asking the individual players to switch from one technique to the other on a play-by-play basis. Will that happen? Will defenses eventually start to shift seamlessly from a two-gapping front line on one play to a penetrating line on another? I have no answer, but I can promise you that this is something the X’s and O’s gurus are spending a lot of skull sweat on, and the high-level film watchers looking out for. As I understand it, the sticking point is getting the skill-set for both techniques properly developed in a single brain. Stephon Tuitt is a great example, because he has the physical talent to be an all-pro as both a penetrator (what he does now), and also as a two-gapper (like Aaron Smith). I’ve understood that he sticks to just the one because confusion (on his part or those around him) would have such disastrous consequences in the form of giant holes where they weren’t expected.

OTOH… maybe that word on the street is wrong, and it is more a matter of personnel than skill. If Heyward and Tuitt both have the ability to play either technique, but are better as penetrators than two-gappers… could it be that Pittsburgh sticks to a penetration-based philosophy simply because that suits the players better? Chris Wormley seemed to imply something along those lines. That is one of the geekier things I’m looking forward to studying as the regular season moves forward.

Some Actual Thoughts And Predictions

The basic penetration structure is going to allocate a lot of the glory to the front-4 (or 5 in heavy packages). Dupree, Heyward, Tuitt, Watt, and the occasional complement will be expected to burst through the offensive line on their way to the Quarterback, playing the run as they go. That is an old-fashioned 4-3 approach, but it will be done with the two pass rush specialists falling back into coverage more than L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White ever dreamed. Expect the sack numbers to continue.

That means the hard mental work, team discipline, and clean up duty will fall to the midfield layer. In a classic 4-3 that would be three Linebackers and a Box Safety. In a LeBeau 3-4 it would be the two ILB’s and the Box Safety, with rotating help from a random OLB. Four players either way.

In the 2020 defense I expect the midfield defenders to consist of two starters – Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds, who will lead the team in tackling by a good margin – plus anywhere from 1-3 helpers according to the particular sub package. These will include Mike Hilton as the slot Corner in Nickel (unless Sutton can take over), Vince Williams and Watt/Dupree in the classic 3-4 look, Ulysses Gilbert III in the light 3-4 look, or an extra box Safety in the Big Nickel look. None of those package players will rack up huge numbers individually. How could they, with the snaps so well divided? But it would not be surprising to see “Mr. Midfield Package Player” end up with a number that’s just a little short of Bush and Edmunds when you add them all together.

The Corners will have cleanup duties of a different kind. All that midfield speed exists to shrink windows as much as making plays. Shrinking windows in the midfield means that opposing QB’s will be forced to look toward the sidelines. I accordingly expect our outside Corners to get tested more often than their skill level would suggest. This will no doubt include the occasional deep ball, but also a lot of fairly safe back shoulder stuff.

The difference maker in the back end will be Minkah Fitzpatrick. I foresee a lot of articles and knowing comments on how Fitzpatrick “created” a big play for Nelson and Haden. Corners have to cede those back shoulder throws if they don’t have a playmaker roaming behind them. With Fitzpatrick they can risk it, jumping on a shorter route without fear of getting burned over the top. The reverse will be true too, though less reported. Playmaking Free Safeties can only afford to jump midfield routes if they have enough confidence in the Corners to abandon the “deeper than the deepest” role.

What will it look like in terms of plays? Innumerable shifting formations and disguises, using the skill and brains of Edmunds and the Corners to free up the Minkah Fitzpatrick X-factor.

Stepping Back To Philosophical Abstraction

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup… Water can flow. Water can crash. Be like the water, my friend. – Bruce Lee

Some truths are just eternal. The Steelers defense strives to be formless. No doubt about it. It flows, always there and always in the way, adapting it’s shape to whatever the offense may offer. Until the chance arises to crash on the opponent, resulting in the big play, turnover, or sack. A very pretty image, no? All mystical and wise. True with a capital T… until you try to put it into action with actual human beings on an actual football field.

Of course players want to “empty” their minds. That is what lets one play on instinct; i.e., faster, and with shorter reaction times. It always amuses me how the players with better “instincts” just happen to be the ones who study the hardest. And of course the defense wants to unite into a formless body that reacts as quickly and efficiently as water filling a cup. This is why we constantly hear about “communication” as the most important part of team defense.

The philosophy is simple. Putting it into effect is hard. That will be the real, hidden task of Bush and Edmunds in the middle of the field. They will be the ones who sacrifice splash plays in order to impose brains, discipline, and tackling range on top of what the front-4 does up front. Brains to make the right reads and head in the right direction, without taking chances that would open the defense up to big plays. Discipline, to make the tackles and defend the passes when the opportunities arrive. And Range, because these midfield players aren’t there for big plays, so much as to shrink the windows and force the opponent to play great ball in order to achieve average results. Or to get back to abstraction, Brains to recognize the offensive shape; discipline to match up accordingly; and range to achieve the matching shape ASAP.

Alas, but that may imply that Terrell Edmunds will continue to be the fans’ favorite whipping boy even if he does exactly what the defense asks him to. [Sigh]. He ain’t gonna get no respect, except from inside the team.

Looking To The Future

I didn’t expect it, but doing this dive kept leading me back to the outside Corners. ThIs defensive approach needs them to play like solid vets. And that means the defensive future will rest in significant part on the development of Layne and Sutton. Haden will have to retire at some point, and Nelson is at his peak with only one way to go. Layne and Sutton have to be ready to step in and maintain the standard.

If they do – and there is good reason to hope based on what we see and hear – the only hole on this defense will be the one alongside Devin Bush. A second all-purpose ILB would also have room to stay on the field full time. Those are the guys with the most flexible skill sets, who can replace many of the sub package roles in a single body.

The offense… Well, that is another story. As it should be after so many years of investment into the defensive side of the ball. I fully expect it to pay off big time for 2020 and beyond. This is a Super Bowl defense, make no mistake.

Someone find us that superstar Quarterback on a rookie deal. We’re gonna need the cap room to pay these young men!

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