Each week, we’ll be breaking down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ secondary and DB play on special teams, offering a report card on the good, bad, and ugly.
Week 1 DB Report Card – New York Giants
In Week 1 facing the New York Giants, the Steelers Defense displayed the tools to be a Super Bowl caliber unit, flying to the ball with speed, holding Saquon Barkley to merely six yards, creating havoc with the pass rush and forcing two turnovers in the process. The defensive backfield pitched a relatively solid performance, holding the Giants in check outside of a coverage miscommunication from between Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick, leaving Steven Nelson with no inside help, leading to a touchdown on the skinny post.
Playing behind arguably the best front 7 in football, average defensive back play can be good enough, but communication will need to improve moving forward in order to avoid allowing more big plays in coverage. The Steelers deployed their signature single high coverages, Cover 1 and Cover 3, frequently throughout the game, while mixing in blitzes, as well as sprinkles of Cover 2, Cover 5(Cover 2 Man), and Cover 4/Quarters.
Overall, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin called a solid game, deploying a great deal of creativity with their pressure schemes, however, I’d like to see the team rely more on their staple Cover 1 in key 3rd down situations, as most good quarterbacks can attack the sticks against drop style zones.
Joe Haden- B
Joe Haden made an impact early and often, finishing with six solo tackles, third on the team, while doing a good job of setting the edge by cutting Giants offensive lineman throughout the game. Early on, Haden gave the Giants life committing a questionable PI on a dig which he had blanketed. Later on, a miscommunication with Minkah led to Steven Nelson receiving no inside help against the skinny post in Cover 3, an impossible cover for any corner.
Throughout the game, Haden made his impact on the run game, providing exemplary work while setting edge vs nub TE, inserting off the edge into the backfield and forcing Saquon back inside to his pursuit. Haden appeared particularly eager to set the edge on a 3rd quarter halfback toss, delivering a devastating blow to the Giants lead blocker, knocking him to the ground and allowing pursuit to swarm Saquon for no gain.
Early on in the second half, playing out of his 1/3 in Cover 3, Haden allowed a stop route to hit in front of him on 3rd and 14. While stop route’s attack a weakness of Cover 3, a corner must be cognizant of the sticks and play with more patience in a 3rd and long situation. Haden finished the game on a high note, reading Jones eyes in zone coverage before high pointing the football and recording a clutch PBU to thwart the 2-point try, closing the door on a late Giants comeback attempt.
Overall, Haden proved instrumental in the Steelers plan to contain Saquon, and played well in coverage, however, cleaning up the communication should be this week’s focus in order to limit future offensive splash play opportunities.
Steven Nelson- C+
Steven Nelson recorded four tackles in the opener, making an impact in the run game, but struggled again in breaking routes for a majority of the night. I saw Nelson take a lot of flack for giving up a touchdown to Slayton, however, in reality the Giants outschemed the Steelers on a post over concept. Late rotations from Minkah and Haden left Nelson without inside help vs the post, leaving him exposed while playing with outside leverage in his zone. Nelson did allow Slayton to attack his blind spot before crossing his face on the post for a score, and he needs to have a better feel for his receiver.
As a corner, you can utilize your “zone eyes”, but you must maintain awareness of the receiver, and can never allow a receiver to get on top of you in Cover 3, a cardinal sin. Like Haden, Nelson did a good job when functioning as the edge player vs nub TE sets, inserting into the backfield and forcing Saquon to cut back into pursuit for TFL’s all night. Good job of tackling the catch all night, particularly coming up on Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram in the flats from his deep 1/3 zone .
With the Giants threatening to score deep in the red zone, Nelson blanketed an Evan Engram out route in man coverage, helping cause Jones to hold the ball, helping lead to a Cam Heyward interception, the unquestionable turning point in the game. Finally, Nelson allowed a late touchdown in man coverage, playing outside leverage vs a goal line slant route. While slants in the red zone are a nightmare for cornerbacks, I’d like to see Nelson get hands on and fight harder to take away in breaking routes by opting for inside leverage here, knowing that out breaking routes are the much lower percentage throw.
Overall, Nelson had a solid performance, particularly in the run game, however, the Steelers are going to need better man coverage from their #1 corner moving forward.
Mike Hilton- A
Mike Hilton had a standout week 1 performance, filling up the stat sheet with 5 tackles, 3 solos, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 2 QB hits, and a pass deflection. Throughout the game, Hilton showed good patience and technique while bailing to deep third in disguised Cover 3, a wrinkle which allows Minkah and Edmunds to make plays on intermediate routes.
Hilton later recorded his first QB hit on the 3rd down from deep in the red zone, forcing an alligator arm throw from Jones, who missed a wide open Evan Engram in the end zone. Got through clean on blitzes throughout the night. Hilton recorded a nice PBU in man coverage on Engram, blanketing an option route. While Hilton certainly got a grab of Engram’s armband, he continues to show his proficiency in coming up and making plays on underneath routes and proving his worth as the NFL’s best corner near the line of scrimmage.
Hilton was part of a miscommunication on a red zone 3rd and 3 where he attempted to pass off Sterling Shepard to Terell Edmunds and pick up the inside man. In reality Shepard was running a whip route, leaving both defenders out of position and leading to an easy pitch and catch for Jones on 3rd and 3.
Finally, Hilton showed great timing and awareness, coming through clean for a key sack on 3rd down early in the fourth quarter, allowing the Steelers D to get off the field and let the offense go to work on the clock up two scores. Overall, Hilton was the most impactful player in the secondary vs the Giants, making a living in the backfield and reminding everyone he can make plays in coverage as well.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- B+
Minkah Fitzpatrick turned in a solid performance, finishing a quiet night with 2 solo tackles. Fitzpatrick showed great recognition on a goal line RPO bubble after Diontae Johnson’s fumble, blanketing Saquon to the flat and forcing Jones to throw the ball away. Minkah moved around more, playing at linebacker depth with Edmunds playing center field on multiple occasions.
Minkah’s biggest mistake of the night came on Slayton’s touchdown, where he hesitated to come down on the over route, causing Joe Haden to hesitate getting on top of the skinny post, leaving the deep middle of the field vacated for the score. Communication needs to be more fluid in cover 3 moving forward, and that starts with the post safety. Later, Minkah made a nice solo tackle on Saquon near the goal line, closing space and shooting low with physicality, taking down the back and keeping the Giants out of the endzone. Stingy red zone defense wins championships and was the difference in this game.
Fitzpatrick showed elite recognition the next play blanketing saquon to the flat in Cover 1 on the rollout, taking away Jones #1 read and help force the chaos leading to the Cam Heyward interception. Finally, he recorded an impressive PBU vs Engram while occupying a hook/curl underneath zone in Cover 3 late in the game. Moving around more in the defense makes it hard for teams to avoid Minkah, as we saw down the stretch of last season.
Fitzpatrick looks beautifully efficient in and out of his breaks playing man and zone against underneath routes, and although most of his work this year will come from the post, I am fully expecting him to make multiple splash plays underneath this year as well. Overall, Fitzpatrick was his usual self in this game outside of a single coverage mishap, and he will look to continue his solid play out of the post and near the line of scrimmage, with more opportunities to create splash plays manifesting themselves in the coming weeks.
Terell Edmunds- B-
Edmunds finished the game with 9 tackles and 7 solos, leading the team in the process. However, Edmunds struggled early and often in coverage, getting beat early in cover 1 on a stop route, which was dropped by Engram. Struggles continued on the first 3rd down situation, during which Edmunds and Devin Bush allowed a hole to open between their cover 3 underneath zone assignments, resulting in an easy completion.
Edmunds recorded an ugly missed tackle early on while covering Darius Slayton, failing to break down and shooting too high, leading to YAC and a first down. Underatedly, Edmunds was all over Evan Engram on TJ Watt’s pick, getting out of his backpedal efficiently to undercut the out route, and putting himself in position to make a play on the ball. On Saquon’s long gain, coming by way of a screen pass, Edmunds leaked too far inside, allowing himself to be washed down by Sterling Shepard. Edmunds could have made the tackle with proper eye discipline, as Haden maintained outside leverage and forced the cutback from his cornerback spot.
Later in the game, Edmunds allowed Engram to stack him to the outside in Cover 1, where Engram made a contested catch which was later waived off as an OPI. Although the call bailed him out, in Cover 1 Edmunds needs to force him inside and play with outside leverage, as he has help deep inside.
Side note, OPI is being called on a much higher frequency this year, an interesting move as the league has been trending toward favoring offense for the past decade.
Later in the first half, Edmunds failed to get under a 3rd and 14 stop route while playing a seam curl flat assignment as the “sky”(roll down) safety. He initially carried the seam well but failed to get underneath the #1 receiver, an inexcusable error on 3rd and long, leading to a demoralizing first down. Finally, on the Giants 19 play third quarter drive, Edmunds got sucked up by play action on 3rd and 1, allowing space for Levine Toilolo to come open in his flat on a shallow crossing route. While it was a great play call by the Giants, I would like to see more awareness from Edmunds here as a third year player.
Overall, this game serves as a paradigm for Edmunds career thus far, flying all over the field and making his impact felt in the stat sheet, but failing to record splash plays and making far too many mistakes in coverage. I would like to see Edmunds have more discipline in his zones next week and moving forward this season, however, seeing him record 3 snaps as the post safety was a welcome sight which the team can build on to improve defensive versatility.
Cameron Sutton- B
Cameron Sutton recorded 21 snaps in the game, all in his role as the Steelers dimebacker. Sutton finished the game with one tackle, a key third down stop on Saquon, while showing presence and awareness in zone coverage throughout the night. On the 3rd down stop, Sutton, manning the flat in the Steelers Cover 3 shell, beating the blockers on a screen pass and stopping Saquon well short of the sticks.
Sutton was not targeted on any other occasions, and overall showed more of the stingy man coverage which we have come to expect of him. With the Steelers intent on stopping the Giants run game first and foremost, the dime package was not deployed too heavily outside of third down situations.
Watch for the Steelers dime package, and Sutton particularly, to make a more significant impact against teams looking to attack the Steelers more heavily through the air. Having Sutton as a fourth cornerback allows the Steelers to suffocate teams with stingy man coverage, allowing the pass rush time to get home late in games.
Sean Davis- B-
Sean Davis gave competent work blocking as an upback on punt team in his return to Pittsburgh, while simultaneously getting down the field in coverage well. On one particularly nice rep on the first punt of the second half, Sean Davis spotted a free rusher off the edge, going low with an effective cut block and helping the Steelers avert a disaster.
Look for Davis to continue to produce effectively on the special teams units, while competing for time in certain defensive packages as the season continues. Davis will also serve as the first man up at both safety spots in the event of an injury.
Jordan Dangerfield- B+
Jordan Dangerfield continued to serve his role as Personal Protector on the punt team. Dangerfield also did a good job on the Steelers lone kick return, sealing off his man to the inside and creating a lane for Ray-Ray McCloud, who almost broke his first return attempt as a Steeler, taking it out past the 30. Overall, Dangerfield turned in a quiet but solid night, providing a noticeable impact on special teams, which is invaluable for a team which just lost a plethora of key special teams players.
Justin Layne- B
Justin Layne got down the field relatively well as a gunner throughout the night. Early on, Layne beat and stacked his man with efficient technique, but failed to break down and tackle the elusive Jabrill Peppers. Layne also provided solid work as a jammer on punt return unit, sealing his man to the sideline and giving Johnson space to work on multiple occasions.
On one occasion, Layne allowed himself to get stacked as a jammer, leaving a free runner at Dionte, who made the man miss. However, although I would like to see Layne compete harder to stay inside and give himself an opportunity to utilize the “hip by” technique on the gunner, I appreciate Layne’s awareness to let his defender go rather than blocking him in the back, instead peeling his head around and seeking out a new blocking assignment. Layne was the first man down the field on the final kickoff, albeit a touchback, but it is always good to show relentless effort on special teams.
Overall, I came away satisfied from Layne’s special teams work, where, especially as a jammer, he can learn valuable skills which can help him translate to playing cornerback in the NFL. Although nobody should expect Layne to record extensive defensive snaps this season, if he continues to provide good work on special teams, he will gain value with the organization and potentially compete for a starting job in 2020.
James Pierre- B-
James Pierre had a decent game, playing solely special teams in his first NFL game. Early on, Pierre had a tough rep as a jammer right before the 2 minute drill, allowing a free inside release by the gunner, failing to get hands on, eventually tripping up and allowing a forced fair catch. Pierre redeemed himself later in the game, staying on the gunners hip long enough for Dionte to get free before getting his eyes back up and making a solid peel back block.
Overall, I liked Pierre’s effort as a gunner throughout the game, and further coaching on his technique can allow Pierre to better use his size and athleticism to become an asset on special teams as the season continues.
The Steelers employed a nickel package on 32% of defensive snaps and a dime defense on 30% of their defensive snaps, accounting for a total of 62% of snaps in sub packages. While this is a slightly lower number than their most recent season totals, much of this can be chalked up to the Steelers coming into the game with every intention of shutting down Saquon Barkley. Overall, the secondary, while clearly the weakest link of the defense last night, pitched a solid performance, holding the Giants passing game in check outside of Darius Slayton touchdown coming off of a coverage breakdown.
While the Steelers secondary allowed catches and yards in between the 20s, they repeatedly clamped down in the red zone, allowing no separation for the Giants receivers, causing the Giants to go 1-3 in the red zone with a turnover on the game.
Overall, I would like to see more Cover 1 employed in key situations in lieu of this week’s choice to employ a spot drop Cover 3 in key moments, as I am very confident in the Steelers defensive backs in man coverage, regardless of matchup. The good news is that the Steelers looked to have the makings of a Super Bowl caliber defense even with good not great play from the secondary, leading me to the conclusion that once the secondary cleans up its minor warts, this defense has even greater heights yet to be reached.