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DB Report Card: Steelers Vs Browns

In the Steelers week 6 matchup against the divisional rival Cleveland Browns, who entered the week fresh off a hot 4-1 start behind the league’s leading rushing attack, seeking to gain their first win against at Heinz field since 2003.  In a matchup featuring star receivers Jarvis Landy and Odell Beckham Jr, the Steelers secondary answered the bell, helping hold the Browns to a meager 145 passing yards, and grabbing two interceptions, including an early pick six courtesy of Minkah Fitzpatrick.

The Steelers entire secondary provided sticky coverage throughout the game, allowing the pass rush to get home repeatedly, pressuring Baker Mayfield on an absurd 47% of his pass attempts.  Joe Haden led the unit with three pass breakups, while Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, and Minkah Fitzpatrick helped bring the unit total to six on the week, a noticeable improvement in their ability to contest receivers at the catch point from last week’s performance.  Most importantly, the Steelers secondary helped hold the Browns to a 1-12 showing on third down attempts, which ultimately swung the game, with the Steelers dominating time of possession by nearly 10:00 in the blowout 38-7 win.

Ultimately, the Steelers defense finally showed its full potential against a seemingly quality opponent, with the secondary providing tight coverage throughout the game, and the pass rush wreaking havoc on a solid Browns offensive line.  Throughout the game, the Steelers mixed up their coverage looks much more frequently, deploying Cover 2 out of two high safety looks, which helped set up their Cover 3 and Cover 1 rolls out of two high looks.  Moving forward with Devin Bush facing a season ending injury, we could see an uptick in Dime package usage on passing downs, leading to more snaps for Cam Sutton.  Traveling next week to face the 5-0 Tennessee Titans, the Steelers game plan could be similar facing an opponent who is reliant on a ground game led by Derrick Henry.  Nonetheless, entering their week 6 matchup against studs like A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith, the Steelers secondary appear back on track, contesting receivers throughout their routes and making plays at the catch point.

Joe Haden- A-

Joe Haden pitched in a productive performance in the Week 6 divisional matchup, tallying three solo stops and three pass deflections, while routinely making plays on the football throughout the game.  Late in the first quarter, with the Steelers running a fire zone, Cover 3 blitz, Joe Haden blanketed Odell Beckham Jr. on a deep post route, playing with outside leverage and squeezing Beckham Jr.  to his inside help defender, Steven Nelson.  Haden’s positioning, as well as Nelson’s effective communication of a “zombie” call, replacing Minkah as the post safety, helped the Steelers pass rush get home for yet another early sack, setting up third and long.  Just one play later, once again operating out of Cover 3, Joe Haden showed veteran instincts, remaining cognizant of the sticks, and staying patient on Odell Beckham Jr. ‘s comeback route.  Haden keyed Baker’s eyes and came out of his break efficiently, taking advantage of a high sailing pass to push Beckham Jr. out of bounds, causing the incompletion and forcing another punt, while saving points in the process.

On the last play of the first quarter, operating out of a Cover 6 boundary assignment, Haden, who was responsible for the flat, allowed Kareem Hunt to beat him to the outside, proceeding to miss a tackle and allow Hunt to scamper for 12 yards and a first down.  Serving as the flat defender, Haden must play everything with outside leverage, as allowing a receiver to cross your face, away from your help, will routinely lead to big gains.

On the Browns lone scoring drive of the game, operating out of Cover 2, Haden was flagged for illegal contact, negating an impressive interception, where he had re-routed Beckham Jr. to the sideline before high-pointing the football.  The hip hook used on this play by Haden is a technique used by all of the veteran cornerbacks all around the league, as it is a subtle, but effective way to impede a receivers progress without being noticed.  Thus, I don’t mind Haden picking up the penalty here as it allowed him to stay in phase to make a play on the football and likely will not be called by the majority of refs.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, with the Steelers deploying a Cover 1 blitz, Joe Haden aligned in off coverage, playing with heavy outside leverage in his man coverage assignment on the speedy Odell Beckham Jr.  Ultimately Haden allowed Beckham Jr. to haul in a spot curl for a gain of 13 yards, however, this is a weakness of the coverage, particularly with no shallow middle help, and I have no problem with Joe Haden protecting against the deep ball first and foremost here.  Three plays later, on 3rd and 2, the Browns motioned to a bunch set to the boundary, with the Steelers initially appearing to be in Cover 1, nonetheless, the secondary communicated the bunch, allowing Joe Haden to take the motion man.  At the snap, Haden broke immediately on Jarvis Landry’s route to the flat, physically playing through Landry’s hands for another impressive pass breakup.

 

On the day, the Steelers defensive backs were visibly more competitive at the catch point, helping rush and cover work in tandem for the first time all season.  Haden’s final pass breakup of the day came on the Browns final possession, working in a Cover 4 Palms scheme.  Haden took patient steps utilizing a shuffle technique before flying out of his break, triggering on an out route, and putting a big hit on Donovan Peoples-Jones while getting a hand in to break up the pass.  Haden contested the catch point tightly all day en route to his best performance of the season, helping give us a glimpse of what this Steelers defense can become if rush and cover work are in sync.  While I still contend that Joe Haden has lost a step, he will continue to benefit from the Steelers use of Cover 2, as well as trap coverages, where he can use his elite instincts and technique to wreak havoc in the quick game.

Steven Nelson- B+

Steven Nelson pitched in a solid effort in Week 6, recording three solo stops and playing a key role in shutting down the Browns star receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.  Throughout the game Steven Nelson did a very good job of making tackles downfield on broken plays, particularly on a late second quarter Cover 3 breakdown, leading to Austin Hooper coming wide open in the flat.  Nelson was able to get his head around and hold Hooper for a 36 yard gain on what would have been a touchdown had he not noticed the coverage breakdown.  On his lone target of the first half, Nelson, operating out of Cover 3, played with patience, eying Baker Mayfield, before rallying to an Odell Beckham Jr. stop route, stopping it short of the sticks for a gain of nine, before the play was called back on an offensive penalty.  Nelson was extremely disciplined in coverage throughout this game, and made tangible improvements in the tackling department compared to earlier performances.

One play after Mike Hilton’s third quarter injury, Steven Nelson saw his first snaps of the season operating out of the slot, tasked with a Cover 1 man coverage assignment against the talented Jarvis Landry.  Nelson widened at the snap, meeting Jarvis Landry with an aggressive two handed jam at the top of his short out route, using physicality to reroute Landry short of the sticks, where Nelson would tackle him forcing a 4th and short attempt by the Browns, which was emphatically stuffed.  This play was a great example of dictating the receiver’s route with physicality, as well as understanding the sticks, knowing that a tackle can be just as good as a pass breakup in certain situations.

 

Overall, Nelson was rarely targeted throughout the game, ultimately only targeted once on the boundary and once in the slot.  This game was a testament to Nelson’s status as the Steelers stingiest man coverage corner, who is capable of completely eliminating receivers the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, albeit aided by the league’s best pass rush unit up front.  Moving forward, if Nelson is ultimately tasked with manning the slot out of the Steelers Dime package in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see if the team tests his chops as a blitzer.  Nonetheless, coming off his worst performance of the season, Nelson rebounded and played a pivotal role in shutting down one the league’s premier receiving cores.

Mike Hilton- B

Mike Hilton played 22 snaps working out of the teams Nickel package before exiting the game early with a shoulder injury midway through the third quarter, failing to make an appearance on the stat sheet for the first time all season.  Early on in the second quarter, with the Steelers deploying a Cover 1 nickel blitz, Hilton once again displayed elite blitz timing, coming off the edge untouched, before initially falling for the play action.  Hilton, who possesses elite quickness and change of direction, quickly contorted his body and put pressure on Mayfield, forcing a contested dump off to David Njoku, leading to a Terrell Edmunds pass breakup.

On the game’s lone touchdown, the communication issues were once again present, with Mike Hilton, operating as the Cover 3 flat defender, failing to get under a wide open Rashard Higgins in the corner of the end zone.  Joe Haden had melted over the top of the inside seam route, thus making it Hilton’s responsibility as the flat defender to melt underneath the outside receiver.  Mental mistakes hurt this defense on a weekly basis, and further elimination of them could help this defense continue to give quarterbacks nightmares in the coming weeks.  Midway through the third quarter, Hilton, playing from linebacker depth, once again displayed his blitzing prowess, displaying perfect timing and knifing through the B-gap untouched.  Ultimately, Kareem Hunt was able to break free of his tackle attempt, but Hilton stopped his progress, allowing for Bud Dupree to corral Hunt after a short one yard gain, attempting multiple “peanut punches” as he approached the back from behind.

Hilton suffered a reported shoulder injury on the play, exiting the game and never returning from that point on, creating a situation for fans to monitor as the week unfolds.  Hilton played relatively well in coverage throughout the game, while once again wreaking havoc in the opposing teams backfield throughout the game, in both the run and pass games.  While Hilton certainly did not have his most impactful game of the season, he remains a key cog to the teams run defense and pressure schemes, making a speedy recovery for him of the utmost importance.

Minkah Fitzpatrick- A

Minkah Fitzpatrick pitched in an impressive performance, playing all 57 defensive snaps and silencing critics with an emphatic pick-six on the Browns opening possession, while also chipping in a solo stop and a pass defense for the afternoon.  Minkah made his impact felt early on, initially aligned in a two high safety shell, before rolling down late into a robber position, jumping a slant route, and returning an interception for 33 yards on the game’s first touchdown.  The monumental play put the Steelers up 10-0, a lead which they would never relinquish, and displayed the merit within the Steelers plan of rotating Minkah around the field more often.  As the Steelers had played a Cover 2 drop zone on the play before, Baker Mayfield made a pre snap read to throw the inside slant, where his receiver appeared to have an isolated one on one matchup with Cam Sutton.  Thus, Minkah’s decision to hold his rotation until post snap helped him surprise Baker, inserting himself into the slant window, and reminding fans why the team traded a first rounder for him just a season ago.

One possession later, with the Browns attempting to convert a 3rd and 6, Minkah aligned on the line as a blitzer before dropping into the middle and taking away Baker’s first read, a shallow crosser over the middle.  The confusion created by changing Baker’s pre/post snap reads once again paid off, forcing him to hold onto the ball, ultimately leading to a timely Bud Dupree sack, and forcing an early three and out.  Minkah was not targeted again for the remainder of the game after providing the Browns quarterbacks with a reminder of his ball hawking abilities.

Minkah’s presence in the middle of the field alone makes quarterbacks hang onto the ball longer, wary of his presence, allowing the Steelers pass rush to routinely pressure opposing quarterbacks at extremely high rates.  Moving forward, as the Steelers continue to move Minkah around, it will be interesting to see if he is ultimately deployed as blitzer in the coming weeks, as he has bluffed blitz alignments multiple times thus far, before ultimately dropping into a robber zone.  While Minkah’s performance this week is certain to quiet critics for the time being, I would expect Minkah’s presence to be felt on frequent splash plays moving forward, particularly if the Steelers pass rush continues pressuring quarterbacks at record numbers.

Terrell Edmunds- A-

Terrell Edmunds continued to display his improvement in Week 6, playing 54 snaps on defense, chipping in two tackles along with an impressive pass breakup, while continuing to provide adequate man coverage against slots and tight ends.  On the first play of the Browns third possession, with the Steelers operating out of their traditional single high Cover 1 scheme, the Browns fooled the entire Steelers defense on a waggle bootleg, which ultimately gained 11 yards on a short Harrison Bryant reception to the flat.  As the entire defense flowed with the run action, Edmunds aggressively jammed tight end Austin Hooper, bracketing Baker Mayfield’s primary target down the field, and forcing the check down on a shot play.

Early in the second quarter, Edmunds, serving as the cap defender for Mike Hilton on a Cover 1 nickel blitz, blanketed David Njoku into the flat on a play action bootleg, recording an impressive pass breakup.  Edmunds held his disguise well before rolling down aggressively at the snap, coming out of his break well, and playing through the pocket while securing the tackle for a physical pass breakup.  Edmunds improvement in man coverage this year has allowed Tomlin and Butler to stay aggressive with Hilton in their blitz schemes without absorbing the coverage lapses similar schemes caused in past seasons.  Midway through the fourth quarter, Dontrell Hilliard broke free, and had a lane down the sideline if Edmunds had not tracked him down from the weak side linebacker spot.  Edmunds took a great angle and finished with physicality, bringing the back down for a 19 yard gain.  As I discussed a week ago, it’s plays like these that turn Miles Sanders touchdown into a manageable situation, where the Steelers defense would force a turnover on downs just plays later.  Terrell Edmunds coverage improvements thus far has allowed the Steelers to safely blitz, trusting Edmunds on an island with tight ends routinely.

One week after helping shut down star tight end Zach Ertz, Edmunds helped clamp down another talented tight end trio of Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant, and David Njoku.  Moreover, Edmunds has finally progressed as a tackler, and serves as an asset for the Steelers in the run game, more than capable of manning weak side linebacker duties in certain packages.

Cameron Sutton- B+

Cameron Sutton recorded his best performance of the season, logging 26 defensive snaps while recording 2 tackles, a sack, a pass deflection, and an impressive interception, his first of the 2020 campaign.  Halfway through the second quarter, just one week after his miscue in the Eagles game, Cam Sutton beautifully executed a Cover 3 flat drop on 3rd and 12, gaining proper depth, sitting at the sticks, and attacking the ball for his first interception of the season.  Sutton disguised his drop well pre snap, and did a great job of mid pointing the two Browns receivers downfield, giving Baker nowhere to go with the ball in a scramble drill.  It is certainly encouraging to see Sutton get the recognition he deserves, as he is a quiet, but integral part of the Steelers pass defense on a weekly basis.

Later, just before half, with the Browns in the red zone, Sutton aligned at safety in place of Terrell Edmunds, rolling down as the “sky” defender in his Cover 3 assignment.  As Baker escaped the Steelers rush to the sideline, Sutton made sure to stay in Baker’s throwing window long enough, before triggering Baker’s takeoff and forcing him to run out of bounds near the line of scrimmage, receiving credit for a sack in the process.  On the final play of the third quarter, Cam Sutton, responsible for a hook/curl zone assignment with the Steelers deploying Cover 2, failed to occupy his zone, allowing Jarvis Landry to cross his face into a vacant zone, ending in a 24 yard gain.  At the snap, Sutton opened outside and melted to the flat, which was occupied by Steven Nelson, placing two Steelers defenders in the flat, opening  a massive hole over the middle.  The Steelers secondary is full of veterans to the system, Sutton included, making these communication miscues completely unavailable, and something that could persist as the Achilles heel of an elite unit.

Ultimately, Sutton had his best game of the season thus far, providing great coverage throughout the game on passing downs, operating out of both zone and man coverage concepts.  With Mike Hilton listed as questionable for the Steelers week 7 matchup with the undefeated Tennessee Titans, Sutton could be in line to assume a larger role, filling in for Mike Hilton in the team’s Nickel packages.

Sean Davis- C

Sean Davis continued to log special teams work in Week 6, playing 10 snaps across multiple units, failing to record any stats in the process.  On the Steelers first punt, Davis nearly made a disastrous mistake, allowing the Browns edge rusher to beat him cleanly with an inside move and nearly block Dustin Colquitt’s punt.  Davis must understand that while his job is to step to edge rushers and meet them in their rush, he must always take heavy inside leverage, protecting the quicker and easier path to the punter.  While Colquitt has by no means been up to standard as the teams punter, Davis and company have done him no favors with their protection up front, an issue which affects the entire unit’s operation as a whole.

Later, on the Steelers next punt attempt, Davis once again stepped up softly, this time being blown back at the point of attack and nearly allowing another late pressure.  Mark my words, if a Steelers punt gets blocked this year, it will come off of a missed assignment by Sean Davis from his left wing spot.  On the final punt of the first half, Sean Davis dipped back into his old bag of tricks, executing an effective cut block on the wing rusher, sending the rusher to the ground before he could get pressure on Colquitt’s punt.  Davis’ work on special teams thus far this season has been nothing more than a disappointment, with a lack of effort and focus consistently leading to mental mistakes, inexcusable for a veteran playing exclusively on special teams units.

While Davis could potentially be in line for defensive snaps down the road courtesy of Devin Bush’s season ending injury, his lack of effort and desire on special teams makes me skeptical of any positives he could provide to an elite Steelers defense.  Davis must understand that at this stage of his career, special teams is his key to staying in the league, thus, maybe Davis could learn a thing or two observing the urgency and desire that his teammate Jordan Dangerfield displays every rep.

Jordan Dangerfield- A

Jordan Dangerfield once again logged extensive work on special teams, playing 20 snaps across multiple units while recording two solo stops on the game.  On the game’s final kick return, just before half, Dangerfield appeared confused at who to pick up, and was ultimately late getting to his blocking assignment.  As a result Dangerfield was unable to execute his kick out block with proper leverage, forcing Ray-Ray McCloud to cut to the sideline, with no visible lane in sight.  On the final punt of the first half, Dangerfield made a physical pickup on a free rusher up the middle, ultimately saving what would have been a devastating blocked punt just before half.  The personal protector job requires both high football IQ as well as physicality, two traits Dangerfield’s game is built around.

On the opening kickoff of the second half, Dangerfield got down the field well, displayed a nice inside move to slip his blocker, and stuck Donovan Peoples-Jones at the 18 yard line.  This play would be marked down as a positive of seven on the hidden yardage report, and was a huge momentum booster for the Steelers defense to start the second half.  After the Steelers final score of the game, Dangerfield got down the field with dangerous intentions, aggressively disengaging from his blocker, and laying a bone-crushing hit on Donovan Peoples-Jones after a 21 yard return.

This guy is the clear tone setter on the Steelers special teams units, and he embodied the same physicality as the Steelers defense throughout the contest.  In a year where the Steelers special teams units lost veteran presence over the offseason, Dangerfield has stepped up to be the leader and tone setter on an improved unit.

Justin Layne- B

Justin Layne played extensively on special teams, logging 18 snaps, while also recording his first three defensive snaps of the season in relief of Mike Hilton in the Steelers Dime package late in the game.  On the Browns first punt, Layne effectively executed a double team with Mike Hilton, using impressive physicality to jam the gunner and impede his progress getting downfield, keeping him far away from Ray-Ray McCloud.

Later, on the Steelers first punt of the game, Layne struggled to separate from a double team while working at gunner, initially utilizing an nice inside release, but failing to beat the jammers with speed, and ultimately failing to approach the returner.  Near the end of the first quarter, on the Steelers next punt, Layne split the double team with speed, getting downfield efficiently and forcing the returner to cut toward the near sideline, where he was corralled by Alex Highsmith.  Midway through the third quarter, Layne had a mental gaffe, beating his man downfield and getting to the returner, but ultimately was baited by Donovan Peoples-Jones as the ball bounced into the end zone for a touchback.  Layne needs to understand that in a short punt situation, the gunners job is to find the ball first and foremost, not necessarily the returner, particularly inside the ten yard line.

Overall, Layne made a few mental mistakes throughout the game, but continued to play with relentless effort and intent, which is all you can ask of a young player on special teams, particularly someone of Layne’s pedigree.  Layne’s physicality shown on the units translated to him filling in as a boundary cornerback the teams Dime packages, a role which he could continue to serve this week if Mike Hilton ultimately misses the game with injury.

James Pierre- A-

James Pierre continued to see his special teams work rewarded, out-snapping fellow cornerback Justin Layne with 19 snaps and recording a solo tackle in week 6.  On the Browns first punt of the game, they threw a wrinkle at Pierre, motioning their gunner inside before the snap to give him speed and leverage for a heavy inside release, a technique used by punt teams on directional punts.  Pierre responded admirably, jamming the gunner with outside leverage initially, before using physicality to stay on top of the gunner, keeping him far away from Ray-Ray McCloud.

Later, on the Steelers first punt, Pierre utilized an impressive “stutter” release from his gunner slot, beating his man off the line, but failed to stack the jammer, ultimately allowing himself to be blocked.  However, Pierre stayed strong at the point of attack, and ultimately disengaged to join in on the tackle as Donovan Peoples-Jones drifted to the sideline, holding his outside contain at all costs.  On the Steelers next punt, facing a double team, Pierre did a good job of beating the double team to the outside and getting downfield, before holding a strong edge against both blockers, forcing the returner to cut right into a physical stick courtesy of Alex Highsmith.  Pierre’s first negative rep of the game came on the Browns first punt of the second quarter, allowing the Browns gunner to split the double team, causing Ray-Ray McCloud to call for a fair catch at the Steelers 12 yard line.  While the error seemed to be more on his inside help man, Cameron Sutton, I would ideally like to see Pierre stay square longer to challenge the gunner, and avoid miscues like this in the future.

Pierre’s best rep of the game came on the Steelers ensuing mid second quarter kickoff, where he was serving his duties in the “kickoff safety” role.  Pierre hung back, remaining calm as Donovan Peoples-Jones cut back across the field with space, tracking the returners back hip, and making an impressive tackle at the 24 yard line, saving a big return in the process.

 

On the Steelers final punt of the first half, Pierre utilized a nice speed release to beat the jammer clean, stacking his man and ending the play in the returner’s grill, ultimately taking Colquitt’s punt squarely off the back, sending it out of bounds.  On the Browns first punt of the second half, Pierre showed great patience and physicality, jamming the gunner off the field before eventually sealing him upfield, creating a massive lane for Ray-Ray McCloud who produced a nice 16 yard return.

Pierre has quietly become one of the Steelers most consistent special teamers in his first season on the team, providing quality reps on the punt, punt return, and kickoff units every week.  Pierre’s role in the team has been solidified moving forward, and he will continue to get a hat the rest of the season due to his special teams acumen.

Overall: A-

The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 44% of total defensive snaps and their Dime package on 26% of defensive snaps, totaling 70% of their defensive snaps in sub packages.  This number is slightly lower than previous weeks, but is less than surprising considering their commitment to shutting down the Browns number one rated rushing attack.  The Steelers defensive backs put together their best performance of the season against their most talented opponent to date, clamping down the Browns talented receiver duo, while picking off two passes and contesting the catch point throughout the afternoon.

The Steelers defensive backs helped hold Baker Mayfield to 10-18, 119 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions before he exited the game with a rib ailment.  Credit the Steelers coaches, who mixed up the game plan operating out of more “two high” safety alignments to confuse the quarterback, rolling into trap coverages after the snap.  Particularly on passing downs, the Steelers ability to change a quarterback’s pre and post snap reads will certainly lead to more confusion and thus splash plays in the future.

After notably horrid performances against Philadelphia, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson performed much closer to their 2019 production, providing sticky man coverage throughout the game, challenging the catch point, and giving no easy completions to the Browns talented receivers.  Plain and simple, when the secondary performs like they did yesterday, in tandem with the league’s best pass rush, this defense is near impossible to score on, even for the league’s premier offenses.  Moving forward into a matchup against the similarly run heavy Titans, look for the Steelers to deploy a similar defensive approach, selling out to stop the run, and making Ryan Tannehill beat them as a drop back passer.

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