Week 5 Defensive Back Report Card
In their Week 5 matchup with the visiting Philadelphia Eagles, the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary entered the week with a seemingly favorable matchup, with the eagles missing a plethora of Carson Wentz top receiving options. In reality, the secondary was lit up by an impressive performance from Travis Fulgham, who finished 10 receptions, 152 yards, and a touchdown on the day.
Throughout the game, the Steelers secondary allowed holes to open up in zone coverages, leading to multiple backbreaking third and long conversations. Moreover, even when the Steelers implemented their signature man coverages, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson consistently failed to make plays on the ball, helping allow the Eagles to convert 10 of their 14 third downs on the game, allowing an abysmal 71% conversion rate. Nonetheless, on the games deciding play, Joe Haden suffocated Travis Fulgham on a third down slant route, forcing a long 57 yard field goal attempt which missed wide right.
Between Haden’s clutch pass breakup down the stretch, and Steven Nelson’s two interceptions, the second one closing the door on the Eagles for good, the Steelers secondary made key plays to swing the game. However, that being said, better teams will look to punish the Steelers boundary corners in the future, and it will be important to see how the secondary response entering a division clash against a 4-1 Browns team, featuring a dangerous duo of receivers in Odell Bechham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Joe Haden- B
Joe Haden played every eligible defensive snap, and was tested early and often, finishing with four solo stops, and recording a clutch pass deflection on the most important defensive snap of the contest. Early in the first quarter the Eagles unsurprisingly tested Joe Haden deep, with the Steelers in a Cover 1 call, and Haden left without safety help to the sideline. Haden responded masterfully, staying patient, before getting to John Hightower’s hip, forcing him to the sideline, and successfully locating the football, which landed harmlessly out of bounds. A major difference between this rep, and similar reps which I have criticized in the past, is Haden’s ability to get hands on Hightower, and use his physicality to stay in phase. Haden no longer possesses the athleticism to hang with receivers solely on speed, and must continue to use his veteran toolbox to remain competitive on future deep ball reps.
Just before half, Haden displayed great technique while covering a post out of his Cover 1 assignment after failing to receive the expected help from Minkah Fitzpatrick in the deep middle of the field. Joe Haden allowed John Hightower to release inside, playing with heavy outside leverage, playing out of trail technique, and clearly expecting inside help. When he realized the inside help was not present, Haden showed veteran instincts, remaining calm with the ball in the air and closing to Hightower’s hip, before locating the football and forcing the end zone incompletion.
One play later, once again operating out of Cover 1, Haden played with the same technique, allowing J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to release inside, before sliding into trail technique. Whiteside then created separation breaking back toward the sideline, however, Haden once again stayed calm, playing through the hands and securing the tackle at the catch point, forcing the clock to run out, and causing the Eagles to leave important points on the board.
Later, midway through the third quarter, Haden was flagged for pass interference while covering Quez Watkins on a seven route out of a cut split. Haden showed great disguise, rolling down at the snap, and blanketing the route with proper outside leverage. Although he could have done a better job of getting his head around at the top of the route, the ball was clearly uncatchable, and the contact was not warranting of a flag, nonetheless, the refs were awful with pass interference calls on both sides, so it’s tough to gripe too much.
Three plays later, Joe Haden, aligned with heavy inside leverage operating out of Cover 1 allowed his first touchdown of the season on an out route by Greg Ward. Although I like Haden’s decision to play with inside leverage at the goal line, he must get hands on the receiver to cause disruption at the top of the route in order to stay in phase, and avoid allowing the receiver room to run away from him to the sideline.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers protecting a two point lead Joe Haden operated out of a press alignment with the Steelers in Cover 1 Robber, playing with outside leverage against John Hightower. Haden hopped to inside leverage at the snap, deploying an effective off hand jam, before allowing Hightower to create separation on a curl route for a nine yard gain. Haden tackled the catch immediately setting up a crucial third down, which the Eagles would ultimately convert.
Three plays later, with the Eagles driving to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, Joe Haden aligned pressed on Travis Fulgham, operating out of Cover 1 Robber on third down. Haden used his veteran instincts to key the trips set, understanding that the number one receiver to a trips set is likely to run an in-breaking route. Haden provided textbook coverage on the slant route, playing patient with heavy inside leverage, and using an effective two hand jam to blanket Fulgham across the middle. At the catch point, Haden secured the tackle with his left hand, using his right hand to play down through Fulgham’s hands, recording clutch pass break up.
Joe Haden has A+ football IQ. Recognizing down/distance, formation, tendencies. 1st half, 3rd & 4, empty. Fulgham runs slant, pass complete to Ertz.
4th quarter. 3rd & 5, empty. Same play. Haden presses, denies free release, breaks up slant to Fulgham. Biggest play of the game. pic.twitter.com/tserbxwMrk
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) October 13, 2020
Regardless of his struggles on the day, the Steelers trusted Joe Haden with the game on the line, and he delivered the game’s most important stop, forcing a long 57 yard field goal attempt which would sail wide left.
Joe Haden certainly appears to have lost a step in his long speed from previous seasons, but continues to use a combination of veteran savvy and alignment disguise to effectively confuse receivers and quarterbacks alike. Right now, Haden is the Steelers most consistent boundary cornerback, and will continue to be trusted with man coverage assignments in key situations. I would like to see Joe become more effective at the catch point moving forward, making more plays on the football, nonetheless, his game sealing pass breakup was certainly a step in the right direction.
Steven Nelson- C+
Nelson had a busy day of work, playing every defensive snap, and finishing with six tackles, five of which were solo, also chipping in two pass breakups and his first two interceptions of the 2020 season. Steven Nelson recorded an offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the game’s first play after a post play scuffle with Eagles receiver John Hightower. While Nelson is lucky the penalties were offsetting, I appreciate him showing nastiness and physicality, particularly after Hightower attempted to set the physical tone early on a stock blocking assignment.
On the games second drive, Nelson, operating in man coverage on Zach Ertz, working out of a Cover 1 assignment, beautifully held his outside leverage against the larger framed tight end. Nelson began the snap in a press alignment, playing with outside leverage against Ertz cut split, allowing Ertz to release inside before attacking Ertz with a beautiful off hand jam, disrupting the timing and leading to incompletion, and a key third down stop. I have repeatedly stressed the importance of the Steelers corners maintaining outside leverage when operating out of Cover 1, as it will allow them to make receivers one dimensional, and make plays like the one made by Nelson below.
Just before the end of the first quarter, playing a Cover 1 assignment out of an off alignment with outside leverage, Nelson allowed John Hightower to create separation downfield on a rail concept. Although Nelson needs to be far more competitive downfield here, he is playing with outside leverage, and was expecting Minkah to provide him inside help. This is the same miscommunication that resulted in the Darius Slayton deep ball touchdown from Week 1, and it is certainly disheartening to see it resurface in Week 5. One play later, on Miles Sanders touchdown run, Nelson allowed himself to be blocked by the receiver downfield, allowing Sanders a lane to cutback on his way to the end zone. While Nelson was in man coverage, he got his head around in ample time to shed the block and make a tackle attempt on Sanders, but failed to do so, allowing Sanders to scamper 70 yards untouched.
Later, in a second and long situation, operating out of Cover 3, Steven Nelson allowed Travis Fulgham to catch an out short of the sticks, failing to close ground, and allowing Fulgham to pick up an easy conversion on the 13 yard gain. Although Cover 3 does present a catch/tackle situation for cornerbacks on short flat route’s, I would like to see Nelson close space with aggressiveness and attempt to limit Fulgham’s yards after catch, rather than passively waiting for the receiver to approach. Nonetheless, I loved seeing Nelson aggressively attempt a “peanut punch”, which was an effective tool for the secondary a season ago, and can create game changing turnovers.
On the Eagles first drive of the second half, Steven Nelson capitalized on a miscommunication between Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz to gather his first interception of the season. With the Steelers once again deploying Cover 1, Vince Williams, who had coverage on Miles Sanders out of the backfield, disrupted the timing of Ertz route with a subtle shoulder bump. Nelson, who had Ertz in man coverage out of the nub tight end set, played over the top of Ertz, allowing him to capitalize on the miscommunication to secure a diving interception, which would set up the Steelers for a crucial James Conner touchdown.
Later, Nelson continued to provide solid run defense, coming from his Cover 3 deep ⅓ zone assignment with urgency, and violently cutting down Carson Wentz after a gain of four. At the tail end of the third quarter, Nelson was once again tasked with a man coverage assignment against Travis Fulgam on 3rd and long, with the Steelers once again deploying Cover 1 robber. Nelson showed fluidity, maintaining outside leverage against the deep out route with a speed turn, putting himself in position to play the pocket, but was not able to pry the ball free as Fulgham sky’d for an impressive grab. I have no problem with this rep as Nelson held his outside leverage and made a play on the ball, nonetheless, Fulgham’s continued tormenting of the Steelers boundary corners is a sign for concern.
On the very next play, Nelson provided a far more concerning rep, once again operating out of Cover 1, allowing Fulgham to record an uncontested catch over the middle. Nelson appeared out of control as Fulgham settled on a deep curl route, playing with far too much cushion and allowing a 19 yard grab to keep the chains moving.
On 4th and 20, with the Steelers operating in prevent defense, Nelson was able to coral the game clinching interception on an overthrown ball intended for John Hightower, closing the door on an Eagles comeback. Many fans have claimed that Nelson should have knocked the ball down to get better field position, however, with the ball in the air, and the game on the line, securing possession is of paramount importance. Moreover, an errant knockdown could lead to a tip ball catch for the receiver, and thus cornerbacks are always taught to high point the football and secure the catch, regardless of situation, just as Nelson did to end the game.
Nelson has not been able to replicate his elite performance of 2019 thus far in his 2020 campaign, providing his worst performance to date in Week 5, routinely victimized by Travis Fulgham. Contrary to his counterpart Joe Haden, Nelson does not appear to have lost a step, but rather is struggling with his technique, a far more correctable issue. Nelson has all the athletic tools to hang with any receiver in this league, and must allow far less cushion in order to make more plays on the football in the future, particularly over the middle of the field.
Mike Hilton- B+
Hilton had another busy day, playing 81% of the teams defensive snaps, while finishing with eight solo tackles on the day, leading the team in that department for the second game in a row, while also chipping in a sack, a tackle for a loss, and another quarterback hit on a productive day. On the game’s second play, operating from the deep safety position, Mike Hilton rolled down at the snap to pick up Zach Ertz in man coverage, taking away Carson Wentz first read, before leaving him to tackle Wentz after a two yard gain on a desperation scramble.
On Miles Sanders 74 yard touchdown run just before the end of the first quarter, Mike Hilton did a good job of diagnosing and filling the vacant A gap, before missing a tackle on Miles Sanders, who displayed an impressive wiggle in the hole. Hilton uncharacteristically stopped his feet at contact, instead opting for a flailing dive at Sanders’ legs. Moreover, if Hilton is going to miss the tackle, ideally you would like him to miss the tackle with outside leverage, to force a cutback into a cavalry of defenders.
Later, Hilton showed impressive tackling instincts and ability while operating in a man coverage assignment, manning the slot in the Steelers Cover 1 scheme. Hilton showed good patience, driving with Fulgham’s break and immediately tackling the receiver, allowing no yards after the catch, and setting up a third down opportunity, where the Steelers struggled defensively all day. One play later, Hilton allowed Travis Fulgham to squirt open on a scramble drill, where Carson Wentz had broken contain upon a missed sack from Bud Dupree. Although scramble drill situations will always present a tough challenge for defensive backs, particularly in man coverage, you would ideally like to see Hilton stay in the receivers vicinity and give himself a chance to compete at the catch point.
On the Eagles last drive of the first half, Mike Hilton displayed veteran presence, gaining depth while operating a flat assignment in Cover 3, before outleveraging the receiver to the sideline, and securing the tackle in bounds, causing the Eagles to burn a timeout as time ticked down on the half. As the Eagles ended up having the clock run out on a completion to end the half, their concerted strategy to keep everything away from the sidelines and allow short receptions proved effective.
One play later, with the Steelers playing Cover 1 to the Eagles bunch trips set, Hilton executed an impressive speed turn to blanket Zach Ertz on an out route, forcing an incompletion in the process. Later, midway through the third quarter, Hilton continued to impact the game, exploding through the C gap, and beating Boston Scott with an inside move to sack Carson Wentz. Hilton initially had a man coverage assignment on the number three tight end, before motion dictated that he became the blitzer, while Vince Williams picked up the motion man in their Cover 1 blitz scheme. Hilton consistently does a great job of timing his blitzes, while simultaneously getting skinny and avoiding blockers, making him one of the league’s premier blitzers at the defensive back position.
Two plays later, on 3rd and 12, carrying the seam as the Tampa defender in a Tampa 2 look, Mike Hilton stayed in tight coverage on Travis Fulgham, but was unable to play through the hands, allowing Fulham to pull down an impressive grab, gaining 31 yards and giving the Eagles another conversion. I am generally fine with this rep by Hilton here, as he was in position to force the Eagles to make a perfect throw and a difficult catch, which ultimately occurred here, but sometimes you just need to give credit to the offense.
Early in the fourth quarter, Mike Hilton continued to make a living in the backfield, blitzing off the edge untouched to tackle Miles Sanders for a short gain of three. Hilton is a key cog to the Steelers run defense, and plays like this depict why the Steelers are able to deploy their Nickel package with frequency without making the run game sacrifices that other teams routinely make. One play later, Hilton, operating out of Cover 1, inexplicably played with heavy inside leverage, allowing Travis Fulgham to easily beat him on an out route from the slot, gaining 13 yards and keeping the chains moving. In Cover 1, whether operating from the slot or the boundary, playing with heavy outside leverage, away from the help defender, can help prevent easy catches like this.
Mike Hilton continues to provide the most consistent play of any player in the Steelers secondary, both affecting the game in coverage, as well as providing consistent run defense and pass rush as a blitzer. Hilton is going to struggle downfield, particularly when asked to carry the seam, which is why I would prefer Cam Sutton, who possesses a much larger frame, to be tasked with these duties more often in the future. Nonetheless, Hilton is in the midst of his best season to date, wreaking havoc in opposing offenses’ backfields, and providing run defense that would make defensive coordinators around the league envious.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- B-
Minkah Fitzpatrick played all eligible defensive snaps in the contest, recording five tackles, and three solos, but was yet again avoided in the passing game, and tackled uncharacteristically poorly throughout the contest. Just before the end of the first quarter, Minkah was manipulated by Carson Wentz eyes, jumping an in route, and subsequently leaving Steven Nelson no help to the deep inside. As quarterbacks have avoided Minkah in the post, it is understandable that he is attempting to make plays in other areas of the field, however, the Steelers were fortunate to avoid a deep ball completion in this situation. Moreover, Minkah needs to understand that forcing teams to drive long fields against this Steelers pass rush is tough for even the best quarterbacks, and his main job as the post safety is to eliminate the deep middle of the field.
On the very next play, Minkah took an inexplicably bad angle from the post safety position, allowing himself to be sealed to the inside on a physical block from Travis Fulgham, leaving Miles Sanders untouched on his way to the end zone. With the Steelers playing a Cover 1 man coverage set on Sanders, Minkah has to make the tackle, as the only defender with eyes on the play. An often underlooked and undervalued aspect of the post safety position, poor angles can turn a 15 yard run into a 70 yard touchdown.
Midway through the second quarter, with the Steelers once again operating out of Cover 1, the Eagles outschemed the Steelers, placing Travis Fullghram at H-back, in order to out-leverage Steven Nelson on the over route. With Minkah serving as the post safety, and Fulgham threatening the deep middle ample separation, Minkah drove the route, arriving at the catch point, but inexplicably opting for a shoulder tackle. In this situation, I would ideally like to see Minkah play through the receivers hands and secure the tackle, which can lead to many pass breakups as we saw from him against the likes of Cooper Kupp and Mark Andrews just a season ago.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, operating as the post safety with Jalen Hurts playing quarterback, Minkah made a nice tackle on Richard Rogers. The Eagles immediately identified the Steelers Cover 3 defense, and attacked the seam, the most exploitable weakness of Cover 3. Minkah Fitzpatrick triggered and tackled the catch immediately, limiting the catch to a gain of 18 yards. While it’s not a flashy play, it is encouraging to see Minkah play disciplined, and effectively work his assignment as the last line of defense.
Later, with the Eagles deep in the Steelers red zone, Minkah Fitzpatrick provided fundamentally sound run defense, beating Miles Sanders to the sideline, and combining with Stephon Tuitt to bring down the back for no gain. Fitzpatrick, much like Devin Bush, consistently provides adequate run defense when flowing sideline to sideline.
One play later, with the Steelers deploying a pattern match zone on the goal line, Fitzpatrick was caught with his eyes in the backfield, drifting too far to the middle of the field, and allowing Travis Fulgham to sit down in the vacant zone for an easy touchdown. Fitzpatrick is at his best when he is able to read the quarterback, however, particularly on the goal line, he needs to do a much better job of covering a man rather than roaming, looking to make a game changing play.
Minkah’s performance against the Eagles was less than desirable, as he appeared frustrated by opposing quarterbacks’ ability to avoid him, taking more risks than in past weeks. Minkah needs to understand that the targets will eventually come, and moreover, that him vacating his zone assignments in order to roam leaves Steven Nelson and Joe Haden, both of whom are struggling, vulnerable over the middle. Teams can not avoid Minkah in the Steelers Cover 1 scheme forever, and if they do, it is a bonus for the Steelers, as it means teams will not attack the deep middle of the field, making the opposing offense far more predictable.
Terell Edmunds- B+
Edmunds continued his productive season, recording five solo stops and a pass deflection in the contest, while playing 92% of the eligible defensive snaps throughout the game. On the first play of the Eagles second drive, Edmunds, aligned in the slot cornerback slot, playing man coverage in a Cover 1 assignment, displayed great patience, before exploding out of his break to blast Greg Ward, forcing a contested five yard catch and allowing no additional yardage. Edmunds is at his best when he is allowed to come down hill, and has continued to show improvements, particularly in man coverage, as the season has progressed.
Just before the Miles Sanders touchdown, Edmunds made a touchdown saving hit on Carson Wentz, affecting the throw, and forcing Wentz to miss a wide open John Hightower. On the play, Edmunds had man coverage on Zach Ertz, but quickly diagnosed max protection, and inserted through the A-gap, clearly affecting Wentz throwing motion. Edmunds continues to improve every week as a blitzer, and gives them another threat to blitz from depth, along with his secondary counterpart, Mike Hilton.
On the Eagles subsequent drive, Edmunds set the tone on first down operating out of a Cover 1, five man blitz scheme. Initially aligned in man coverage on the slot receiver, Edmunds passed his man off to Vince Williams in response to motion, inserting into the box and meeting Sanders with physicality in the A gap, holding the back to a meager one yard gain. Edmunds continues to appear more comfortable in this defense, which has allowed him to play much more fluidly, and become a key contributor to this defense. Midway through the second quarter, with the Eagles operating out of an empty set on a third and four from the five yard line, the Steelers opted to deploy a zero blitz, sending both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton off the edges. This left Edmunds in man coverage on an island with Zach Ertz, aligned in the slot, where Edmunds allowed Ertz to beat him across his face on a slant route.
Ideally, with no inside help, you would like to see Edmunds play with heavy inside leverage here, but his ability to stay in Ertz hip pocket and secure the tackle short of the end zone was encouraging.
Late in the third quarter, Edmunds once again aligned in man coverage over the slot receiver, serving as the cap defender, replacing Mike Hilton in a Cover 1 blitz. Edmunds rolled down late, playing with patience before breaking on an out route from Greg Ward rapidly, tackling the receiver for a gain short of two yards. Edmunds has tackled very well over the early portion of the season, and has certainly improved that facet of his game compared to his previous seasons. Later, midway through the fourth quarter, Edmunds, once again serving as the cap defender over the slot in a Cover 1 slot blitz, Edmunds blanketed Greg Ward, finishing with physicality , and likely would have recorded a pass if not for an errant throw. Edmunds provided solid reps throughout the game as a cap defender in the Steelers blitz schemes, coming downhill with aggressiveness and affecting short throwing windows.
Edmunds improvement throughout the early portion of the season has been encouraging, as he is settling into his role, and for the first time in his career, appearing both comfortable and confident in the scheme. Edmunds communication has been much improved, allowing him to confidently diagnose plays, coming downhill well in both the run and short passing game. Specifically, Edmunds has improved significantly in man coverage on slot receivers, where he is able to use his explosiveness and physicality to affect throws.
Cameron Sutton- B-
Sutton continued to serve as the team’s primary dime defender, recording 21 defensive snaps, while failing to record any stats throughout the contest. Just before half, with the Steelers operating out of inverted Cover 3 on 3rd and 17, Sutton failed to get proper depth in his underneath flat zone, allowing for a hole to open up in between him and Joe Haden, which Wentz would exploit for a 20 yard first down completion. Sutton needs to understand that he can rally late to the flat, particularly on third and long, and that protecting the sticks is of paramount importance, particularly just before half.
Sutton, who certainly must be disappointed that Steven Nelson came down with what would have been his first interception of the season, continues to provide quiet but solid play as a dime defender. Outside of mishap on a crucial third down, Sutton had a relatively quiet game on tape, which is hardly a bad thing for a dime cornerback, playing exclusively on passing downs. Sutton could certainly help the team in their Tampa 2 packages, as his size and speed could certainly allow him to carry the seams far more effectively than his counterpart, Mike Hilton.
Sean Davis- C
Sean Davis continued to record work on special teams, playing seven snaps on multiple different units throughout the contest. Davis produced a solid rep from his wing position on the Steelers first punt, stopping Corey Clement in his tracks off the edge, helping keep Dustin Culquitt clean for a boot, which was spotted at the Eagles 14 yard line.
On the Steelers first kick return of the second half, Sean Davis failed to engage his man with tight hands, opting instead to throw a shoulder into the defender. Predictably, his man was able to disengage and tackle Ray Ray McCloud well short of the 25, at the Pittsburgh 18. On a late third quarter punt, Sean Davis once again produced a solid protection rep at his wing slot, stepping up to stonewall Boston Scott in his tracks yet again. Davis best reps of the season have come from the wing slot on punt, where he can use his strong base to provide adequate blocking.
On an early fourth quarter kick return, Davis once again failed to get a body on his man, allowing him to get in on the tackle, and bring down Ray-Ray McCloud at the Steelers 24 yard line. Davis needs to provide better effort on this unit, as his punt team reps have shown his ability to square up and block adequately.
I came away from this game extremely disappointed with Davis’ effort on special teams particularly as a blocker on the kick return unit, where his effort seemed lackadaisical all game. Allowing your man to tackle the returner on two separate occasions is completely inexcusable, particularly for a player who is solely playing special teams at the moment. Davis’ work as a blocker on the punt team was far more impressive, however, I would not be surprised if Davis eventually loses his kick return job to a younger, hungrier player, such as James Pierre.
Jordan Dangerfield- B+
Dangerfield recorded a busy day of work on special teams, playing 16 snaps on various units, and finishing the contest with a pair of solo stops. Dangerfield’s first stop of the day came on a second quarter kickoff, with him serving in the kickoff safety role, did a nice job of settling in, and bringing down Boston Scott, who had been tripped up by James Pierre, at the 24 yard line. After the play, Dangerfield appeared especially hyped up, which is a great sight to see from a veteran who is tasked with setting the tone on special teams.
On the Eagles first kickoff of the second half, Dangerfield did a great job of sealing his man to the inside, and clearing him out with good effort, creating a lane for Ray-Ray McCloud. Dangerfield’s block likely could have sprung McCloud if not for a missed block by Sean Davis, further exemplifying how the kick return unit is an eleven man job.
Dangerfield recorded another solid rep on an early fourth quarter kickoff, engaging his man and sealing him off to the sideline. Unfortunately, Ray Ray McCloud misread his block leverage and tried to bounce outside, allowing the defender to get a piece of him and bring him down at the 24 yard line. Dangerfield finished the play with physicality, driving the blocker to the ground, and continuing to embody his play through the whistle identity.
Overall, Dangerfield chipped in another very solid performance on special teams, showing maniacal effort and tenacity, punishing the man across from him with physicality throughout the game. While Dangerfield rarely makes the tackle, he often sets the physical tone for the Steelers special teams units every rep, which energizes the younger players and shows his commitment to Danny Smith’s units. Dangerfield has served on the roster almost exclusively as a special teamer since 2014, and continues to provide a steady veteran presence to the Steelers units, an even more important task following the departure of Dirty Red this offseason.
Justin Layne- B+
Layne continued to record reps on special teams, recording 11 snaps on various units in the game. On the game’s opening kickoff, Justin Layne produced a great rep working as the contain man, getting downfield with urgency, before physically setting a tough edge, and forcing the returner to cut back into a host of defenders, where he was brought down at the 17. While it may not seem overly significant, anytime a team can produce a plus seven in hidden yardage on one play, it holds a tangible impact on the game.
On the Eagles first punt, Layne showed great feet, mirroring the gunner off the line, before aggressively riding him off the field, and keeping him away from Diontae Johnson. One slight critique of this rep would be Layne’s failure to play through the whistle, ultimately allowing his returner to squirt free, an issue which could be corrected solely through more consistent effort. Later, on the Steelers first punt, Layne recorded a beautiful rep from his gunner slot, beating the jammer with a speed release, before executing a great throw by move, and forcing a fair catch.
Layne corrected his earlier mistake on Philadelphia’s second first quarter punt, allowing his man to release outside, before showing great speed and staying glued to his man all over the field, finishing the rep still on the gunners hip.
Overall, I came away generally impressed with the work Layne provided across multiple special teams units, showing athleticism and tenacity in his work as both a gunner and a jammer. For a player of his pedigree still exclusively playing on special teams in his sophomore campaign, it would be easy for Layne to lose faith. Nonetheless, Layne has grasped the opportunity to become a major special teams contributor, and continues to provide solid work in the phases of the game that nobody notices.
James Pierre- A
James Pierre played his best game to date in Week 5, playing 10 special teams snaps, and recording an impressive solo tackle on the day. Pierre recorded a solid rep on the Eagles first punt, staying engaged with the gunner throughout the entire rep, despite allowing a smooth inside release, and could have created a nice lane for a big return if Diontae had played off his leverage correctly. The return ultimately only went for ten yards, but it is great to see Pierre continue to improve at the Jammer position, particularly with a pair of dangerous return men on the roster.
Pierre’s second rep on the Punt Return team was even more impressive, forcing the gunner to release outside by staying patient with his feet, before launching the gunner out of bounds with an impressive two hand jam. Pierre once again stayed glued to the gunner’s hip throughout the duration of the rep, keeping the gunner far away from Diontae Johnson. Pierre continued his solid day of work on a second quarter kickoff, showing ideal effort and speed, beating a blocker off the edge and making a diving tackle attempt, tripping up Boston Scott at the 20 yard line. Ultimately the tackle would be credited to Dangerfield and Gilbert III, but make no mistake, it was Pierre’s effort that stopped Boston Scott’s progress short of the 25.
Late in the third quarter, replacing Chase Claypool at the gunner slot, Pierre produced his most impressive rep of the day. Initially, Pierre was jammed off the field, before turning on the jets and beating the double team down the sideline with speed, ultimately sticking Greg Ward for a short one yard gain. If Claypool’s involvement in the offense this week is any indication of the team’s plans moving forward, Pierre could see more reps in the gunner slot, which he has proven more than capable of handling.
I couldn’t be more proud and excited for Pierre after far and away the best special teams performance of his young career. I had criticized Pierre in past weeks for not challenging gunners enough at the line, an issue which he corrected, challenging gunners throughout the game, and keeping them away from the Steelers returners. Pierre’s work as a gunner was even better, showing fantastic effort and athleticism to split double teams, and affect the return man immediately upon the catch. I would love to see Pierre gain more responsibilities on special teams, potentially replacing Sean Davis on the kick return unit, where he would almost certainly provide an improvement in effort.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 42% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 34% of their defensive snaps, accounting for a total of 76% of their defensive snaps against the Eagles spent in sub packages. This is a relatively high number, but the Steelers led the Eagles for a majority of the game, and were able to effectively make the Eagles one dimensional, allowing for more opportunities to deploy sub packages. The Steelers defensive backs undeniably had their worst performance of the season as a unit, consistently allowing Travis Fulgham to carve them up when seemingly nothing else was working for the Eagles offense.
Although it is extremely important to point out that in today’s NFL teams will move the ball and score points, the influx of splash plays allowed was extremely disheartening. Moreover, the team’s inability to get off the field on third down, particularly third and long situations, falls squarely on the secondary, and needs to improve rapidly with tougher competition on the horizon.
Overall, the defensive backs deserve credit for creating stops with the game on the line, and producing stops on two straight drives to close out the game. Moving into a matchup with a surging Cleveland Browns team, possessing a host of offensive weapons and an offensive line more than capable of giving Baker Mayfield time, the secondary faces their toughest challenge to date. It will be interesting to see if the Steelers continue to rely heavily on their Cover 1 blitzes against a mobile quarterback in Baker Mayfield, or continue their trend of deploying zone defenses against mobile quarterbacks.
Subsequently, the performances from Steven Nelson and Joe Haden were disheartening, but more disciplined play from Minkah in the post could help quell these issues moving forward. Moreover, the Steelers pass rush has been historically good, and it is reasonable to assume T.J. Watt and company can force more errant passes in the future, allowing the secondary to produce more splash plays.