DB Report Card: Steelers Vs Broncos

In a Week Two contest against the visiting Denver Broncos, the Steelers relied on another dominant performance from the front seven, logging seven sacks and a forced fumble, while constantly pressuring Jeff Driskel for the majority of the game after Drew Lock exited early.  The Steelers employed a variety of coverages, relying primarily on their staple Cover 1 single high scheme, including many different pressures and wrinkles, while also mixing in Cover 3, Cover 2, Invert Cover 2, Cover 6, and Cover 4 quarters.

The Steelers defensive backs made their impact felt on the game, with a Joe Haden pick, Terell Edmunds clutch sack, and Mike Hilton’s numerous sacks and TFL’s.  However, there were too many lapses downfield in coverage, particularly from Terell Edmunds and Joe Haden, who both had their fair share of struggles in man coverage throughout the game.  The secondary, along with the linebackers, also struggled to contain Noah Fant, who feasted on underneath crosses and corner routes throughout the game.  Nonetheless, in the end, the defensive backs made plays when it counted, and helped hold Denver out of the end zone on the deciding possession.

Joe Haden- B

Joe Haden pitched a relatively solid effort in week two, logging one solo tackle, a pass deflection, and grabbed his first interception of the year.  Early on, Haden was flagged for a pass interference on third down.  After blanketing a spot route, operating out of Cover 1, Haden  panicked, playing far too physically with the ball in the air, particularly considering that he was in position for an undercut to get a hand on the ball.  This is becoming an unfortunate trend with Joe in 2020, as he appears generally to have lost a step in coverage, both in long speed and in short area quickness.

Later, on the first Broncos offensive play after Claypool touchdown, with the Steelers in Cover 1, Haden inexplicably aligned with heavy inside leverage from off coverage and failed to get hands on the receiver, who ran straight past him on the fly route.  Haden must understand as a veteran that his help is located deep and to the inside in Cover 1, and that he must play all routes with outside leverage, opposite of his help.  Haden corrected himself well the next drive, playing with heavy outside leverage in Cover 1, and allowing room for his inside help, Minkah Fitzpatrick, to affect the QB’s throwing window, Haden was able to sink into perfect position to capitalize on a Cortland Sutton drop and nab his first interception of the season, which he returned for 24 yards, placing the Steelers inside the redzone at the Broncos 11 yard line just before half.

Haden continued his steady play early in the fourth quarter, showing great patience operating in Cover 1, staying patient and getting to K.J. Hamler’s hip pocket on an overthrown curl route.  Later, during the closing minutes of the game, with the Steelers operating out of their five man pressure, Cover 1 scheme, Joe Haden once again failed to maintain outside leverage, getting caught with his eyes in the backfield as Hamler broke for the sideline, gaining eighteen yards on the deep out.

Overall, Haden certainly appears to lack the twitch and long speed of his counterpart Steven Nelson, and is going to give up plays in man coverage, but as he demonstrated repeatedly, he can still be an impactful player when he relies on his elite veteran instincts.  While Joe Haden should rarely be left without safety help against a speedy receiver, he still has some of the best instincts and ball skills in the secondary, and will continue to produce splash plays as the season continues, with the Steelers finding ways to scheme around his weaknesses in athleticism.


Steven Nelson- B+

Steven Nelson rebounded from a tough week one, coming back and delivering a 2019 esque performance, finishing with two solo tackles, a pass deflection, and consistently tight coverage on the Broncos number one weapon, Cortland Sutton, who exited the game late with injury.  On the Broncos first offensive snap, Nelson gave up a tough back shoulder ball, demonstrating great patience off the line and getting to Sutton’s hip pocket with physicality, before allowing Cortland Sutton to hand fight with him and create separation at the top of the route.  Nelson needs to remain more in control at top of the route in order to make a play through the receivers pocket, however, the back shoulder is the toughest ball in football to cover.  Nelson rebounded nicely, remaining all over Cortland Sutton on a dig early on the game’s first third down stop, and likely would have made a play on the ball if it were not swatted down at the line of scrimmage.

Nelson later failed to bring down Melvin Gordon, appearing complacent to watch Minkah Fitzpatrick attempting to corral Gordon a solo tackle right in front of him, Nelson needed to show better effort and join in on the gang tackle here and help Minkah.  Nelson atoned for his mistake the very next play, defeating a block and making a physical solo tackle on Gordon in the open field.  Just before half, on 3rd and 20, Nelson beautifully executed the Steelers Cover 3 call, utilizing a zone turn and squeezing Tim Patrick to the sideline, drawing an offensive pass interference call in the process.  In the third quarter, operating out of Cover 1 against a nub tight end set, Nelson was caught off guard while covering Noah Fant, ending up nowhere in the vicinity of Fant, who gained 14 yards on the underneath drag, and set the Broncos up for a goal to go situation.  Later, Nelson did a good job cleaning up a 13 yard scamper on a cutback by Royce Freeman, coming in from the outside and cutting out the legs of the big back.

Throughout the game, Nelson showed the ability to blanket Cortland Sutton all over the field, showing elite speed and lockdown, number one cornerback ability.  Overall, Nelson rebounded nicely in week two, proving to be the Steelers most reliable boundary corner, demonstrating the ability to execute his assignments and clamp receivers working out of both man and zone assignments.  Look for Nelson to continue operating heavily against teams number one options in the future, as he did throughout the game, allowing only two catches in man coverage on the day.

Mike Hilton- A

Mike Hilton continued his productive season, finishing with a team leading eight solo tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 QB hits, a sack, and a pass deflection.  Early on, Hilton made a heads up play with a key fumble recovery on a Bud Dupree strip sack, taking 3 points off the board in the process.  All night, Hilton was active around the line of scrimmage, knifing through the C gap to stop Gordon at the line early in the game.  Later, Hilton made a big man play, coming off the edge, blowing Vanett up at the point of attack and holding contain, before disengaging and making a great TFL on Gordon.  On a five man pressure, Hilton came clean off the edge for a nice sack, using great blitz technique by pressing the point man, aligned in a cut split, disguising until late before screaming off the edge unblocked for the sack.  There might not be a better off ball blitzing defensive back in football right now.  Two plays later, on 3rd and 25, Hilton split two blockers and stopped a Cortland Sutton screen for no gain, forcing the field goal attempt.

Later, Hilton took too shallow of an angle on blitz, allowing Driskel to get outside of him on a designed bootleg.  In the future, Hilton must always blitz the Quarterbacks upfield shoulder, giving him no lane to slip up and to the outside.   Before half, Hilton blanketed KJ Hamler on an incomplete slant over the middle, forcing a missed 58 yard field goal attempt.  Later, Hilton once again blanketed K.J. Hamler down the field on a seam ball just before half, skying for an athletic PBU.  Early in the second half, With the Steelers deploying a Banjo Coverage, Mike Hilton missed an “in” call from Joe Haden, allowing K.J. Hamler to cross his face for an easy 13 yard completion.  Hilton continued to display great blitz disguise in the late 3rd quarter, using impeccable timing to come flying off the edge untouched and record a disruptive Quarterback hit on Jeff Driskel.

A play later, Hilton showed great awareness once again, faking the blitz before picking up his man in the backfield, and eventually coming off his man to commit a mindless penalty, blasting Driskel well after the ball had been released.  I, more than anyone, love Hilton flying around at 1,000 miles per hour all the time, but personal foul penalties are a great recipe in allowing a struggling offense to capitalize.  To the surprise of no one, Noah Fant scored on a 20 touchdown one exactly play later, bad teams always feed on momentum.

Hilton displayed great patience operating in man coverage on 2nd and 7 midway through the fourth, staying patient, attacking Desean Hamilton on a shallow drag, and finishing with physicality for PBU.  Late in the fourth quarter, Hilton continued his standout game, blanketing Jerry Juedy on a slot fade, forcing an incompletion deep down field.  Hilton made two great consecutive plays late in the fourth quarter, first tackling a quick slant for five yards, allowing no YAC.  The very next play, Hilton, aligned at linebacker depth, came flying through the weak side D gap, tracking down Melvin Gordon from behind, and setting up 3rd and 2.

Hilton made plays all over the field throughout the game, remaining a disruptive presence in the backfield all game long, demonstrating impeccable timing and disguise on his blitzes, both against the run and the pass.  Hilton also recorded an impressive game in coverage, blanketing the Broncos speedy slot receivers, allowing no yardage on multiple deep targets throughout the contest.  Mike Hilton coming off the edge remains a staple of the Steelers defense, and can help create confusion as it did on the final defensive play, helping free up Terell Edmunds to come undetected off the edge.  Hilton has been the Steelers most productive defensive back early in the season, playing with relentless effort, and pacing the team in tackles through two games.


Minkah Fitzpatrick- B-

Minkah recorded a productive, yet somewhat sloppy game in the end, finishing with six total tackles, four solo, yet missing numerous tackles and displaying minor coverage lapses as well.  Fitzpatrick began the game with a good break and finish at the ball to get involved on a PBU on Jeudy out route, operating out of Cover 6.  He later displayed good tackling mechanics, attacking on a good angle, shooting low and cutting Gordon down for a gain of 7.  Later in the first half, Minkah dropped his head and failed to wrap up, allowing for Melvin Gordon to gain extra yards.  Throughout the game, he ook multiple questionable angles from the post, allowing extra yardage on broken run plays.  Minkah later arrived late and out of control on a Jerry Juedy crosser, failing to wrap up and allowing for extended YAC once again.

Fitzpatrick later made a tackle on a Hamler end around, but overall appeared to be tackling too low and failing to finish through the tackle attempts all game, an uncharacteristic lack of discipline from him.   Later, Minkah aggressively came after Driskel like a bat out of hell as the quarterback scrambled to his right, forcing a throwaway and a near Edmunds interception.  Minkah later provided good coverage on a stop route at the sticks early 2nd, displaying good patience and would have recorded the PBU if not for the overthrow.  While Fitzpatrick was relatively slow coming down, operating as the robber in Cover 1, he displayed great closing speed tracking Fant’s back hip, before committing an obvious horse collar, in a situation where he can use the sideline as help.

Later, Minkah did a good job in Cover 1 at the goal line, making his presence felt over the middle and affecting the throwing lanes, leading to a overthrow intended for Noah Fant, who had a step on Vince Williams.  Minkah nearly recorded a nice pass breakup on third and two, playing catch technique, before breaking quickly and making a physical pass breakup just before the ball arrived.  Personally, I like the aggressiveness I saw from him and am not too concerned with the call.  Minkah once again showed great closing speed in the fourth quarter, coming from the deep hash to stop Tim Patrick a yard short of the sticks on the sideline.

Overall, Minkah had a productive game but uncharacteristically struggled to tackle throughout the game, taking some questionable angles, while often failing to wrap up and aiming too low.  Teams have opened the 2020 season generally throwing away from him in the post, however, with him rolling down multiple times a game thus far, expect Fitzpatrick to be in position to make a splash play sooner rather than later.

Terell Edmunds- B

Terell Edmunds had a career game, recording two solo tackles, a quarterback hit, a pass deflection coming on a near pick, a TFL, and the game clinching fourth down sack.  Early on, Edmunds made a great play attacking the football, undercutting a throwaway to the sideline.  It is great to see him attack the ball while in the air, which has been his biggest weakness thus far in Pittsburgh.  Later, Edmunds stayed in Jerry Jeudy’s hip pocket on an over route, operating out of Cover 1, but failed to play the pocket at the catch point and allowed the grab near the sideline.  Early in the second quarter, Edmunds didn’t gain enough depth in his hook/curl zone on the Steelers invert Cover 2,  allowing Juedy to get open for an easy conversion on 3rd and 8.  Edmunds vacated his hook/curl zone, following a tight end to the flat zone, which was already occupied by Nelson.

Edmunds later came up on the Steelers signature 5 man Cover 1 pressure, where they sent Mike Hilton off the edge out of a press alignment, before capping the vacated slot receiver with a Safety, who rolls down on the snap.  Edmunds rolled down into catch man technique, but was caught flat footed and allowed an easy 17 yard completion on a deep out route to KJ Hamler.  Edmunds recorded a good rep early in the second half, scraping over the top and filling the hole to combine with Tyson Alualu for a two yard stop.  Later on, Edmunds did a great job staying disciplined while playing man coverage against Melvin Gordan out of the backfield, sifting through a pick route, staying glued to Gordon’s hip and forcing the crucial goal line stop.

Late in the fourth quarter, on third and 11, Edmunds was once again caught flat footed coming down in man coverage, getting beat across his face and clearly grabbing Tim Patrick, leading to a pass interference call and a Broncos first down.  Edmunds needs to understand that the quarterback and receiver still need to make a throw and a catch in this situation, and that a pass interference on third and long is a cardinal sin.  Terell Edmunds put an end to the game on the best play of his Steelers career, flying untouched off the edge and corralling Jeff Driskel for a sack and an 11 yard loss.  While the play may seem easy, give credit to Edmunds for taking a disciplined rush angle and allowing the quarterback no room to slip and escape to the outside.

Edmunds had his struggles in week two, but more than made up for it by producing multiple key stops throughout the game, none bigger than his 4th down sack to secure the 26-21 win for the Steelers.  Overall, Edmunds is going to continue to have his struggles in man coverage, but improved ball skills and continued disruption around the line of scrimmage can allow Edmunds to unlock his full potential.

Cameron Sutton- C+

Sutton had a generally quiet game, recording a single tackle on 13 defensive snaps while operating as the Steelers dimebacker.  Sutton continued to demonstrate versatility, dropping from his dime spot to the deep half and deep middle in the Steelers Tampa 2, and Cover 3 dime package wrinkle.  These wrinkles help create confusion, causing the quarterback to hold onto the ball, giving the pass rush a larger window to create chaos.  Later in the first half, Sutton was questionably called for a block in back which took Diontae’s Punt Return touchdown off the board.  Although I think it was a bad call, throwing the hands up as if to say “not me” will draw attention to yourself and pressure the refs to make a call every single time.

Later, on 3rd and 7 midway through the fourth, Sutton got caught with his eyes in the backfield, while manning the hook/curl zone in an Invert Cover 2 call, and allowed Tim Patrick to run open in a vacated hole behind him.  Overall, Sutton struggled to maintain zone discipline in his limited snaps, allowing a key conversion late in the game.  Sutton will play more extensively against teams looking to spread the Steelers out, where he will be able to impact the game through his coverage skills and instincts.

Sean Davis- B+

Davis continued to provide solid special teams work, sealing off edge on a second quarter punt from their own end zone, continuing to provide solid work as the wing on the punt unit.  Davis continued to do good work with a nice cut block later in the second quarter working as a wing on punt team, effectively neutralizing the rush threat off the edge.  Finally, Davis recorded a good rep on the after Safety Kick Return, seeing Diontae Johnson cutting back and sealing his man to the inside, creating another cutback lane for the shifty return man, springing him for extra yards in the process.

Overall, Davis provided good, assignment sound blocking throughout the game from his wing spot on the punt team, while handling his duties well on the Kick Return unit as well.  Expect Davis to continue providing competent work as a core special teamer, with potential to earn playing time in niche defensive packages as the season progresses.

Jordan Dangerfield- A-

Jordan Dangerfield pitched a very solid day of work on special teams, standing out particularly as a blocker on the Kick Return Unit.  Early on, working as the Personal Protector on the punt unit, Dangerfield sealed off penetration up the middle.  One minor critique of Dangerfield’s work as PP, would be that he could transition quicker from the blocking phase to the coverage phase quicker, allowing himself to be more involved in corralling the return man.

Dangerfield produced a particularly great rep on Ray Ray McCloud’s forty nine yard Kick Return, sealing his man up field and to the sideline, and  creating a cutback lane to the sideline for McCloud.  On the after Safety Kick Return,  Dangerfield continued to display great effort, making a key block to spring Diontae’s Houdini act return, where he reversed field and made countless defenders miss, allowing for Dangerfield to get back out in front and make a second block on the same return.

Overall, Dangerifeld has served as a key special teamer for the Steelers through two games, and while he likely won’t see much time on defense this season, his contributions have been felt, particularly in the improved Kick Return game.


Justin Layne- B+

Justin Layne produced a relatively solid game in which he contributed solely on special teams.  Layne got down the field well on the opening kickoff, where he successfully executed his job as the contain man.  Layne also had a great rep on the first punt return, sealing the gunner off to the sideline and running him through the end zone.  Later, Layne got down field clean working as a gunner and combined with Claypool for a heads up tackle, his first of the season.  In the second quarter, Layne fought through a double team at gunner to force a cutback, and allow for a quick tackle.

On the Steelers second punt, Layne got washed down outside, and would have created a return lane had Chase Claypool not forced the fair catch.  On Diontae’s Punt Return touchdown, which was waived by penalty, Layne did a great job staying on gunner’s hip, disengaging late, and giving Diontae Johnson a chance to make the man miss.  Finally, just before half, Layne had a tough rep on a Punt that traveled out of bounds, allowing the gunner to beat him with speed, stack him, and arrive at Diontae Johnson before the punt landed.

Overall, Layne continued to provide solid work on the Kickoff, Punt, and Punt Return units, providing great effort, and overall solid play on all units.  Moving forward, I would like to see Layne be more physical as a jammer, as he can struggle to run with gunners when he fails to alter their path.

James Pierre- B

James Pierre got a hat and served as a special teamer for the second week in a row as an undrafted rookie.  Early on, Pierre, working on a double team with Cameron Sutton Sutton, held the gunner off long enough to allow Diontae Johnson to square his feet and make the man miss, after which Pierre turned his head around and found another man to block rather than stay stagnant.  I was very impressed by the level of effort and awareness from the rookie on this play, as oftentimes rookies will make the mistake of hanging on a blocker too long once beat, leading to ugly penalties.

Similar to Layne, Pierre allowed his man to get inside after getting turned around off the line, but recovered well, stayed on his hip and gave him no solid angle to tackle Diontae, leading to a weak missed tackle attempt  Finally, Pierre produced a great rep working as the Jammer on the Punt unit, staying locked onto the Gunner all over the field, keeping him well away from Diontae Johnson.

Pierre has provided solid work as the right side jammer on the Punt Return unit through two games, and if he and Layne continue to improve, we can expect much more opportunities for the ever dangerous Diontae Johnson to capitalize with more frequency in the near future.

Overall: B

Overall, the Steelers secondary pitched a solid effort, holding Drew Lock to 20% completion on five pass attempts before allowing his backup Jeff Driskel to complete 18 of his 34 attempts for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns.  The secondary redeemed itself by producing splash plays, with Haden’s interception, as well as clutch sacks from Mike Hilton and Terell Edmunds.

One glaring issue to me was the Steelers inability to maintain outside leverage while operating out of Cover 1, their staple defensive coverage call.  In order to succeed in Cover 1, defenders must play with heavy outside leverage, forcing all routes inside to their post safety.  Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds particularly struggled to hold outside leverage throughout the game, leading to some big gains for Broncos receivers in man coverage.  Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson stood out, with Hilton making plays all over the field, and Nelson providing consistent, lockdown cornerback level play while guarding the Broncos boundary receivers.

Overall, the Steelers secondary made enough plays in week two to secure a crucial win and improve to 2-0, however, they allowed far too many splash plays to an offense which sustained significant injuries throughout the game.  Next week, against the Houston Texans, a team with an elite quarterback and a solid set of offensive weapons, the Steelers must clean up their technical issues within their staple Cover 1 coverages in order to avoid allowing further splash plays.  Additionally, look for Cam Sutton to have an extended defensive role in the teams Dime package next week against a Texans team that likes to spread teams out and play through Deshaun Watson’s arm.

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