Week 3 Defensive Back Report Card
In their Week 3 matchup with the visiting Houston Texans, the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary faced their toughest challenge to date, tasked with stopping an offense led by pro bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson. Early on, the unit appeared overtasked, allowing over 200 passing yards in the first half alone, while allowing two of the Texans three touchdowns through the air.
Following key halftime adjustments to tighten holes in the Steelers zone coverages, the secondary helped hold Watson and the Texans to 51 total yards and two first downs, while sacking Watson three times and picking him off late to help seal a shutout second half performance. Throughout the game, the Steelers continued to feature their signature Cover 1, but also relied more heavily on Cover 3, Cover 2, and most notably Inverted Cover 3 on key downs, to combat Watson’s scrambling ability.
While the secondary has yet to match the lofty standards set in 2019, they continue to produce enough splash plays to come away with wins, and will likely continue to improve as the season progresses.
Joe Haden- B+
After an up and down game against Denver, Haden rebounded, providing steady play while playing all 47 defensive snaps against the Texans. Haden put together a quiet but solid effort, notching 2 solo tackles and a pass deflection on the afternoon. Early in the second quarter, Joe Haden, playing from depth to a two tight end nub set, came up to fill the C gap and tackle David Johnson after a two yard gain, forcing a 3rd and medium. Later, on David Johnson’s walk in touchdown, Haden aligned at linebacker depth in response to motion, leaving the Steelers with no overhang defender to contain the off-tackle run.
While Alex Highsmith appeared to lose his contain assignment, Haden must realize he offers far more value at the goal line providing outside contain than filling interior gaps. Midway through the third quarter, operating out of Cover 1 in press alignment, Joe Haden allowed Will Fuller to turn him around with a diamond release, and create space for a gain of 15 on the deep slant, before being taken down by Minkah. In the future, Haden needs to get hands on and play with heavy outside leverage here to avoid being turned around on crafty releases. Finally, late in the game, operating out of Cover 2, Haden did a great job of playing with outside leverage, getting hands on Brandon Cooks and blanketing him over the middle, nearly intercepting a pass thrown behind Cooks, forcing 3rd and long.
Overall, Haden provided solid fundamentally sound coverage throughout the game, in both man and zone assignments, cleaning up his technique and allowing no explosive plays on the day. Haden provides a steady veteran presence in the secondary, and if he continues to rely on his technique and instincts, more splash plays will come as the season continues.
Steven Nelson- C+
Although I praised Nelson for a standout performance last week, he responded playing his worst game of the season thus far in week three. Nelson ultimately played all 47 defensive snaps, finishing his rough outing with a solo tackle, but was targeted with frequency and ceded his second touchdown of the season on a red zone fade just before half. Early on, while operating out of Cover 1 on a third and short, Nelson was picked by the tight ends release, allowing Brandin Cooks to gain separation on the mesh concept, taking a shallow under route for a 20 yard completion. Ideally, Nelson would recognize Cooks cut split, identify the mesh threat, and be prepared to get into trail position immediately, which allows him to avoid the designed pick.
Early in the second quarter, on a coverage miscommunication out of Cover 4 Palms, Steven Nelson jumped the shallow out at the snap, allowing for an easy hole shot down the sideline to David Johnson in front of Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was playing over the top. The rules of the coverage call for the cornerback to carry the number one receiver vertically unless the number two receiver runs an out route, in which case the cornerback jumps the out route, leaving the safety to carry number one vertically. While Minkah was attempting to disguise the coverage by alignment close to the line, he needed to be quicker to pick up the number one receiver in the future to avoid easy pitches and catches against the useful trap coverage.
Nelson’s tough day continued early in the second quarter, operating out of a Cover 2 zone on 3rd and 6, Nelson was caught with his eyes in the backfield, content to cover grass in his underneath flat assignment rather than sinking underneath Kenny Stills on a deep curl. The completion went for 20 yards and put Houston deep inside the Pittsburgh red zone, where they would score to take an early 14-3 lead four plays later.
Seconds before half, Nelson blanketed Will Fuller with physicality on a fade working out of press, but was not quick enough to react to Watson throwing an early back shoulder ball at the goal line. Nelson never located the ball, allowing Fuller to climb the ladder for an uncontested touchdown catch, a backbreaker, putting the Texans up 21-17 going into the locker rooms.
Overall, Week 3 proved to be Nelson’s worst of the season thus far, with Houston targeting him in key situations throughout the game, and converting many with relative ease. While Nelson continues to display all the tools in coverage, he displays the ability to make plays on the ball in the air, or opposing teams will continue to target his matchup. While Nelson rebounded to produce steady play in the second half, aided by an improved pass rush, his play needs to improve moving forward, or quarterbacks will continue to target him in key situations. As I’ve stated, I believe Nelson has all the athletic tools to serve as this team’s number one cornerback, but needs to produce with consistency before the team entrusts him in this role.
Mike Hilton- A-
Mike Hilton had another standout game against the Texans, playing 79% of the team’s defensive snaps, logging 37, while leading the team in tackles in the process. As stated, Hilton led the team with eight tackles, all solo, while also chipping in a TFL, pass deflection, and a game changing pick for the day. Early on, Hilton did a great job filling the D gap on the second play of the Texans opening drive, coming downhill, shooting low, and cutting down David Johnson for a five yard gain. Hilton continued to provide solid run defense later in the first quarter, beating a Randall Cobb crack block to the inside, and inserting into the backfield to coral David Johnson for a meager two yard gain.
Later, Hilton had a tough rep, allowing a touchdown while operating out of Cover 1 for a first quarter score. Hilton failed to maintain outside leverage, biting hard on an inside stem from Randall Cobb, before coming flat footed out of his transition and allowing the easy 28 yard score. As I have stated numerous times in past reports, if the Steelers are going to continue to heavily deploy Cover 1, their cornerbacks are going to need to be much more disciplined in maintaining outside leverage, and protecting away from their help. Later in the first quarter, on 2nd and long, Hilton displayed elite recognition, beating a Randall Cobb block with speed and blowing up Willie Snead IV behind the line on the screen pass, forcing 3rd and long.
The very next play, playing a shallow zone responsibility as the flat defender, Hilton got depth to take away the #1 receiver on a deep curl before rallying to the flat and tackling Jordan Akins well short of the first down on a late dump off by Deshaun Watson.
Just before half, Hilton continued to display elite blitz timing, creeping up from linebacker depth, beating David Johnson inside with speed, and flushing Watson out to his left, where he would be chased down and sacked by Devin Bush and Bud Dupree, setting up 3rd and long. A play later, Hilton aligned at deep safety at the snap, before rotating to the flat in an inverted Cover 3, taking away the seam, before aggressively rallying to the flat and taking down the Texans fullback well short of the first. On the last drive of the first half, Hilton allowed Jordan Akins to work open past the sticks during a Deshaun Watson scramble drill. A cornerback must know that during a scramble drill, a downfield receiver will work back towards the line of scrimmage to create an easy target for their quarterback. A play later, working out of Cover 1, Hilton was beat deep inside for a fifteen yard gain by Randall Cobb, to put the Texans in the red zone just before half. However, in Cover 1, the cornerback is tasked to play outside leverage away from their deep inside help from the post safety, which came just a hair late from Minkah in this instance.
After a field goal to begin the second half, Hilton saved a touchdown while serving as the safety on a kickoff, slipping underneath a block and cutting down the returner, who had nothing but green grass ahead. Ultimately, Hilton made the key play of the game operating out of Inverted Cover 3. At the snap, Hilton rotated deep to become the post safety, getting over the top of Willie Snead, before speeding up to undercut an off balance pass from Deshaun Watson, coming away with an impressive pick and setting the Steelers up to grind the clock and take the lead for good.
Hilton was the Steelers best defensive player in this matchup, leaving his imprint all over the game, impacting the game equally around the line of scrimmage and downfield in coverage. The Steelers have finally unlocked Mike Hilton’s full potential, moving him around from safety, slot cornerback, and outside linebacker alignments throughout the game. From these various alignments, Hilton is able to impact the game on all levels, establishing himself as one of the NFL’s most impactful defenders early on, leading the team in stops thus far, while adding multiple sacks, PBUs, and a game changing interception.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- B+
Minkah Fitzpatrick rebounded nicely from an uncharacteristically sloppy week two, playing all 47 defensive snaps, and provided steady play, finishing with five solo stops and multiple third down stops on the afternoon. The Steelers continued to establish their commitment to moving Minkah around, rolling him down as the Tampa backer in an inverted Tampa 2 early in the second quarter, highlighted in the gif above. Fitzpatrick also was caught with his eyes in the backfield, where ideally you would like to see him carry the tight end up the seam before working outside and underneath the open Kenny Stills.
Minkah continued to move around just before half, aligning on the line of scrimmage showing blitz, before dropping into a Robber zone with Edmunds manning the post in the Steelers Cover 1 scheme. Later on, Minkah, playing out of the post in Cover 1, was late to recognize Cobb squirt open deep over the middle, arriving a hair late, allowing the easy 15 yard completion, but taking down Cobb with no YAC. Finally, Minkah’s best rep of the game came on the Texans final possession, playing a deep hook/curl zone at the sticks on 3rd and long, Minkah stayed patient, allowing routes to develop, before shooting out of a cannon and delivering a big hit to bring Kenny Stills down well short of the sticks and force a punt.
Overall, Minkah provided solid coverage and provided physical, fundamentally sound tackling throughout the contest. As the Steelers continue to make good on their commitment to move Minkah around more, look for Minkah to make a splash play sooner rather than later.
Terell Edmunds- B+
In week three, Terell Edmunds built on a solid week two effort, playing all 47 defensive snaps, and finishing a solid outing with four solo tackles, taking good angles and tackling efficiently throughout the game. Edmunds did a great job operating in man coverage out of Cover 1 on the first defensive snap, closing space rapidly from his safety spot, and laying a nice hit on the back David Johnson to force the early drop. Later on, playing out of a Cover 2 drop zone in the red zone, Edmunds got caught playing with happy feet, trying to provide help up the seam, rather than settling down to take away Will Fuller on a stop route at the two yard line.
Edmunds displayed solid tackling, dropping Fuller with no room for YAC, however, the catch set the Texans up first and goal, where they would score the very next play. As Watson scrambled right, Cam Sutton, playing underneath Fuller, was forced to charge Watson and force him to pull up, which would have forced the incompletion had Edmunds rotated down to Fuller in time.
Edmunds continued to tackle well just before half, coming from his safety spot to corral Brandon Cooks with a physical hawk roll tackle, after the slippery receiver had mixed Vince Williams in the flat. On a 3rd and long early in the third quarter, Edmunds, operating as a hook/curl zone defender in an inverted Cover 3, stayed patient before rallying to the flat to bring down David Johnson well short of the sticks on the dumpoff. Finally, on a 3rd and long to start the fourth quarter, playing a hook/curl out of Inverted Cover 3, Edmunds allowed Watson’s eyes and legs to influence him, drifting past Randall Cobb who sat down in his zone for a catch and run of 34 yards.
Overall, Edmunds continued his upward trajectory, improving on a weekly basis as both a run defender and in coverage. Although Edmunds would still be considered a better box safety, his man coverage continues to improve weekly, and the team is trusting him much more as a post safety, which has allowed Minkah to align closer to the line of scrimmage in certain situations.
Cameron Sutton- B
Cam Sutton continued to contribute out of the teams dime package, playing on 30% of the team’s defensive snaps, logging 14, with another 12 coming on special teams. Sutton made an impact on the Texans first drive working out of Cover 1, showing great patience, and blanketing Jordan Akins on a shallow crossing route, forcing an early punt. Later on, Sutton did a good job initially on the goal line to reroute Will Fuller, sinking underneath him to take the read away, before charging Deshaun Watson as he approached the line of scrimmage, who made a crisp throw to Fuller in the vacated zone, just in front of Terrell Edmunds.
Throughout the game, Sutton continued to operate well while playing out of the post safety slot, disguising the rotation well and playing disciplined out of the post. Later, on special teams Sutton did a great job working a double team with James Pierre on a punt just before half, keeping the gunner well away from Ray Ray McCloud.
Overall, Sutton continues to contribute in the teams dime defense, and was featured as the post safety in multiple key situations on Cover 3 Invert calls, as the team was much more content with the playing zone to combat the threat of Watson’s legs. While Sutton has provided consistent play throughout the early portion of the season, look for a splash play in the near future, as he has been in position on multiple occasions before errant throws.
Sean Davis- B+
Sean Davis continued to provide solid reps on special teams, logging 11 snaps spread across the Kick Return and Punt teams. Early on, Davis executed an effective backside block on the games first returnable kick, sealing his man off backside away from the return, which Ray Ray McCloud took back to the 23. Later, on the Steelers first punt, Davis was caught flat footed, allowed the wing rusher to cross his face, and nearly allowed a block.
The next rep, punting from deep in Steelers territory, Davis did a great job, attacking the outside rusher with physicality and sealing him outside, rather than staying patient. This aggressive style also allowed Davis to transition downfield into coverage quicker, as his man was nowhere in the vicinity of the punter. Davis needs to understand that you must never allow inside pressure on a punt, and inside leverage needs to be protected at all costs. Davis continued to provide solid reps on kick return to start the second half, once again sealing his man upfield and outside, this time creating a lane to spring McCloud for 28 yards on a strong side return.
Overall, Davis has continued to provide solid work on special teams, offering an importance which can not be understated, particularly with a key special teamer in Derek Watt appearing set to miss multiple weeks.
Jordan Dangerfield- C
Jordan Dangerfield had his worst game of the season, logged extensive work on special teams, gathering 20 snaps on the day, but failing to make an impact. Dangerfield continuously whiffed while attempting to block his man on multiple different kick return opportunities.
On the Steelers first punt, Dangerfield, working as the personal protector, failed to pick up the man who beat Sean Davis clean, but did a much better job of transitioning into the coverage phase, allowing him to impact the return. Dangerfield had a much cleaner next rep, stepping up as the Personal Protector and providing strong help as the inside rushers had created significant penetration.
Dangerfield set a weak edge on the Steelers first kickoff of the second half, showing a lack of physicality, and creating a lane for Deandre Carter to exploit, which was luckily cleaned up by Mike Hilton. Finally, on a late third quarter punt, Dangerfield once again found himself without work as a personal protector, and transitioned rapidly to the coverage phase, getting down field well to impact the return.
Outside of the two positive reps I noted, Dangerfield failed to impact the game in any noticeable way during across 20 special teams snaps, not acceptable output from a player who is on the team solely because of his profile as a core special teamer.
Justin Layne- B+
In week three, Justin Layne logged extensive snaps on special teams, 18 in total on the afternoon, providing solid work on three units. Layne finished the game with 1 solo tackle, coming on a nice rep while working as a gunner on the punt team. Layne combined with Claypool to bring the punt returner down immediately. Layne produced a good rep on the game’s first punt return, which was not fielded, sealing his man to the sideline, and riding his hip to keep him away from the returner. Later, Layne did a great job, serving as contain man on the games first returnable kickoff, being the first man down the field and collapsing the returners lane from the outside, forcing the cutback right into a Marcus Allen tackle.
On the Steelers first punt, Layne was swallowed up inside by a double team, getting nowhere near the return man on a tough rep. Layne similarly had a tough rep on the game’s second punt, allowing the gunner to beat him inside with a crisp diamond release, getting beat with speed and stacked, allowing the gunner to arrive at Dionte, and force an inexplicable fair catch at the four yard line. Layne’s tough day continued just before half, opening the gate after being beat with a speed release, and allowing the gunner to beat him, stack him, and eventually tackle Ray Ray McCloud after a 13 yard return. Layne, who profiled as a big physical press cornerback, must do a much better job of staying square and getting hands on gunners off the line.
Just after half, Layne recorded an impressive rep on the first kick return, aggressively throwing his body to execute a double team and take his man away from the returner. Layne more than made up for his earlier mistake on the next punt, beating the jammer with an inside move, before stacking him and tackling Will Fuller immediately after he fielded a short rolling punt. Layne had a standout rep on the games second punt return, physically jamming the gunner the field of play, staying on his hip, and utilizing an impressive “hip by” or “scrape paint” block to spring Ray Ray McCloud for an impressive 12 yard return.
On the first punt of the third quarter, Justin Layne impressively beat the jammer off the line with a speed release, but failed to stack and allowed the jammer to relocate him before the punt was downed by Robert Spillane. Layne had a rough rep on a late third quarter punt, once again releasing well and beating the jammer with speed, but failing to stack and allowing the jammer to ride him upfield and past the returner. Finally, Layne produced a great rep on the game’s final punt, executing a double team with physicality, keeping the gunner roughly 30 yards away from McCloud.
Overall, I was very impressed with Layne’s special teams work on the afternoon, providing quality special teams work across three units, and showing great physicality and effort in the process. If Layne continues to produce on special teams, he could potentially earn snaps later in the season in a blowout, or as a matchup dependent dime player against elite tight ends.
James Pierre- B-
James Pierre had a relatively quiet day, logging ten special teams snaps, but failing to produce many positives outside of his work filling in for Chase Claypool as a gunner.
Overwhelmingly, Pierre needs to do a better job holding his outside leverage when working as a jammer on the Punt Return team, as this became a discouraging pattern with him. On the games first punt, operating out of a double team with Cam Sutton helping to his inside, Pierre controlled the gunner off the line, before being beat across his face to the outside, an unacceptable outcome.
Amending his mistake, Pierre did a great job on a first quarter kickoff serving as the contain man, getting downfield quickly and setting a hard edge, forcing the runner to cut back into a beautiful open field tackle by, once again, Marcus Allen. Pierre had a far better rep just before half, physically executing a double team and keeping the gunner far from Ray Ray McCloud, before getting his head around and finding another threat to block on the 13 yard return.
Later, Pierre had an atrocious rep on the first return of the second half, allowing the gunner to burn him with an inside speed release, before stacking him with speed and putting a clean hit on McCloud as he fielded the punt. Luckily, McCloud avoided disaster, breaking the tackle and going for 12 yards , however, Pierre, a cornerback, needs to show much more ability to mirror gunners on their releases.
On his first gunner rep of the season, replacing Chase Claypool, Pierre showed impressive speed before utilizing a rip move to beat the jammer on the short punt, which was not fielded. Pierre was once again beaten cleanly off the line late in the third quarter, allowing the gunner a free run at Ray Ray McCloud on a short punt which was not fielded. On his second rep at gunner, Pierre beautifully split a double team, coming free to force Deandre Carter to cut back into a gang tackle after a short, 8 yard return. Finally, on the final punt of the game, Pierre once again was beat off the line by the gunner, who flew down field untouched to force a fair catch.
Overall, Pierre needs to do a far better job of mirroring gunners off the line, which would allow him to stay engaged downfield. Moreover, although Pierre was able to provide replacement level work at the gunner position, Chase Claypool has been a stud in that role and will likely not see his role reprised any time soon.
The Steelers employed their Nickel package on 49% of their defensive snaps and a Dime package on 28% of their defensive snaps, accounting for a total of 77% of the team’s defensive snaps against the Texans spent in sub packages. This is a higher number, but can be attributed to the Texans inability to establish a run game, as well as the Texans choice to feature Deshaun Watson’s arm early. Although the secondary allowed Deshaun Watson to pick them apart in the first half, they settled in nicely, clamping down and forcing a game altering turnover in a key situation.
Touching on the first half, it is important to remember that Deshaun Watson is one of the most talented players at the quarterback position, combine that with today’s rules, and you are going to give up some yards and points on the day. Moreover, the Steelers were able to correct their zone coverage miscues in the second half, speaking to the mental toughness of this unit, as well as the coaching of Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, and Terryl Austin.
Overall, moving into a potential matchup with the Tennessee Titans, fresh off a facility shutdown due to a Covid-19 outbreak, the Steelers are likely to employ a much different gameplan. First and foremost, the Steelers are sure to borrow from their Week 1 gameplan, where they held Saquon Barkley to a mere six rushing yards, facing last year’s playoff sensation Derrick Henry. Moreover, I would expect the Steelers to feature man coverage much more heavily in the game plan against a less mobile quarterback, heavily employing their staple Cover 1 blitzes, particularly if A.J. Brown fails to dress for a third straight week.
Through three weeks, the Steelers have established themselves among the NFL’s elite, showing their ability to control games playing complimentary football on both units, nevertheless, minor improvements in the secondary could unlock an even greater level of defensive play.