In the Steelers week 7 matchup against the unbeaten Tennessee Titans, the Steelers played excellent complimentary football in the first half, jumping out to an early three possession lead, before holding on for a hard fought 27-24 win. The secondary had lapses in the second half, particularly on a long touchdown to A.J. Brown, but forced Ryan Tannehill to fit the ball into tight windows for the vast majority of the game, recording five pass breakups as a unit.
While the Steelers did allow Ryan Tannehill to complete 18-30 pass attempts for 220 yards and two scores, 73 of them came courtesy of a Minkah Fitzpatrick gaffe on a slant route by A.J. Brown. Moreover, the Steelers secondary challenged the catch point throughout the game, doing so without much help from the vaunted pass rush, who unquestionably had their quietest game of the season. Cam Sutton and Terrell Edmunds both had great outings against the Titans, with both recording multiple pass breakups and tackling effectively in crucial situations.
Ultimately, it’s hard to fault a secondary that helped hold an undefeated Titans team to a 38% clip, converting just 5 of their 13 third down attempts. The Steelers continued to deploy Cover 2 with success throughout the game, while simultaneously continuing to deploy their single high Cover 1 and Cover 3 schemes with frequency. An interesting wrinkle, particularly useful against run heavy teams, was Tomlin and Butler’s decision to sub Cam Sutton in for Terrell Edmunds while remaining in base, allowing the team to have three cover cornerbacks on the field to match 11 personnel with man coverage, while remaining stout against the run. Interestingly enough, the Steelers held Jonnu Smith to one reception for nine yards, continuing their season-long trend of shutting down opposing tight ends, a positive reversal from their decade-long struggles against opposing tight ends.
Overall, this Steelers defense has shown how dominant it can be, however, their propensity to give up the big play is becoming somewhat concerning, and needs to be cleaned up moving forward. Entering a matchup against the run heavy Baltimore Ravens, led by 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, the Steelers secondary will need to clamp down against deep shots to speedy receivers like Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
Joe Haden- B+
Joe Haden had another busy week on the stat sheet, logging 56 defensive snaps while recording seven tackles, four of which were solo, a tackle for a loss, and another impressive pass breakup. On the first play of the Titans second possession, Haden was tasked with a man coverage assignment against Jonnu Smith on a nub tight end, I-formation set. With the Steelers deploying Cover 1, Haden aligned with outside leverage, before blanketing Smith over the middle on a crossing route, and getting his left hand across for a clean pass breakup. While covering a crossing route with outside leverage is a nearly impossible task, Haden’s efficiency out of his break, along with his eye discipline allowed him to make the play.
Throughout the game Haden provided his usual physical run defense on the edge, helping get into the backfield and gang tackle Derrick Henry as he tried to break the defense’s contain on multiple occasions. Coming out of the two minute warning, Joe Haden recorded an impressive tackle for a loss against Derrick Henry, disguising his Cover 2 flat zone assignment by rerouting the #1 receiver before quickly breaking on Henry’s flat route and laying a physical hit before the back could get turned upfield. Haden has benefited from the Steelers return to Cover 2 concepts, allowing him to use his veteran instincts to make plays underneath, while disguising his exploitable lack of long speed downfield.
On a 3rd and long attempt, with 1:05 remaining and the Steelers protecting a three point lead, Joe Haden aligned with outside leverage in a man coverage assignment, working against A.J. Brown in a Cover 2 man concept. Haden went into trail technique, knowing he had help over the top and anticipating a route at the sticks, yet failed to stay in phase with A.J. Brown’s out route, ultimately allowing an easy completion. While trail technique has been effectively employed by Haden throughout his career, I would much rather see him get hands on A.J. Brown to reroute and plaster the star receiver in a game breaking situation.
The very next play, this time manned up on Corey Davis, Haden utilized an impressive speed turn to stay in phase on the slant and contest the catch point, ultimately tackling Davis after a seven yard gain and forcing a crucial third and long situation. Finally, on the Titans next play, Joe Haden blanketed Corey Davis on a deep shot down the sideline, operating without safety help in Cover 1 robber, Haden squeezed Davis to the sideline forcing Tannehill’s pass to sail harmlessly out of bounds.
Overall, Joe Haden pitched an impressive performance, staying in position to force contested catches throughout the game, while providing ample run defense off the edge to help in containing Derrick Henry, joining in on three tackles. Haden will continue to benefit from the Steelers increased use of two high trap coverages, and is clearly playing his best football of the season during the past two weeks after a rough start to the year.
Steven Nelson- C
Steven Nelson had a rough against the Titans, playing 56 defensive snaps while recording four tackles, but once again failing to make any plays on the football. Midway through the second quarter, with the Titans driving, Steven Nelson, operating out of Cover 1, allowed A.J. Brown far too much cushion on a slant route, which picked up 13 yards uncontested. Brown, an extremely talented route runner in his own right, froze Nelson with a nice headfake, however, Nelson’s failure to drive the route allowed for an uncontested catch opportunity.
Particularly in man coverage, cornerbacks are going to get beat on short route’s, nonetheless, failing to drive on the route at any point is unacceptable, regardless of who is lined up across the ball. Just before half, operating out of the slot in a Cover 6 flat zone assignment, Steven Nelson showed great zone presence, sinking under a deep curl, before rallying to bring the big tight end Anthony Firkser down short of the sticks with the help of Justin Layne. The stop helped the Steelers get one final possession before half, while Nelson continued to show his proficiency while playing from the slot.
Nelson, who was brutalized by A.J. Brown slants routinely when the Steelers deployed single high, allowed another uncontested 20 yard reception early in the fourth quarter. Nelson aligned in press, before bailing at the snap, taking himself out of phase to contest any shallow in-breaking routes, ultimately allowing A.J. Brown room to gain yards after the catch, a continued theme throughout the contest.
Throughout the afternoon Nelson struggled to stay in the vicinity of A.J. Brown on shallow to intermediate in-breaking routes. While clearly attempting to show respect for Brown’s speed, the cushion allowed Brown room to run for multiple explosive plays after the catch . While Nelson struggled on the outside throughout the game, I thought his work in the slot was much better, and the Steelers may have potentially found their most effective dime package, even upon Hilton’s return. Justin Layne played well on the outside, while Nelson provides a much twitchier athlete, and more capable coverage player over the middle than Mike Hilton at the slot position.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- C-
Minkah Fitzpatrick once again had a busy day on the stat sheet, playing all 57 defensive snaps while recording five tackles. Nonetheless, his outing will be remembered for two inexcusable gaffs that helped allow the Titans back into the game late. On the Titans first touchdown, with the Steelers appearing to operate out of Cover 2 man, Minkah Fitzpatrick failed to provide Cam Sutton with inside help, allowing Corey Davis to score relatively easily on a crossing route. As Cam Sutton aligned pre snap playing catch technique with outside leverage, along with the fact that Terrell Edmunds gave Joe Haden inside help to the boundary, it is reasonable to assume that Minkah was tasked with inside help here.
Later on, on a third down just before half, Minkah Fitzpatrick matched Corey Davis, playing a Cover 4 quarters coverage to the field side of a Cover 6 call. Minkah rolled down at the snap, played with patience, and undercut Corey Davis on a short stop route at the sticks, forcing Tannehill to throw the receiver back outside, ultimately leading to an incompletion and a key stop. While Minkah will get no credit on the stat sheet for this play, he likely grabs a pick here if Tannehill gets the ball out on target, and moreover, his presence in the area undeniably forced the incompletion.
On A.J. Brown’s third quarter touchdown, which ignited the Titans comeback bid, Minkah was tasked as the post safety in a Cover 1 call, where he is responsible for the last line of defense. At the snap, Minkah read Tannehill’s eyes, coming down to give Steven Nelson inside help on a slant route, before hesitating and failing to touch A.J. Brown, as he sprinted down the middle of the field for a 73 yard touchdown. Although Minkah appeared to believe Vince Williams was going to tip the pass, he is the last line of defense in a Cover 1 scheme, and big plays over the middle fall squarely on his shoulders in single high coverages.
Later, on 4th and 1 at the goal line, Minkah grabbed a hold of Jonnu Smith to prevent a touchdown after being hit with an illegal pick from Corey Davis, who threw his shoulder into Minkah with aggression. While the illegal pick call was missed, Minkah could have avoided this situation altogether by aligning at depth, in order to play at a different level from Steven Nelson, who was pressed, which would have allowed him to scrape over the top and avoid the pick.
Overall, Minkah played by far his worst performance of the season, with multiple coverage miscues leading to explosive plays, helping spark the Titans comeback, as well as failing to coral a tipped ball pick on a day where everything seemed to bounce the Titans way. Moreover, Minkah showed a lack of physicality, allowing Derrick Henry to slip free of his grasp multiple times throughout the game, although that is a common theme with defensive backs trying to tackle the monstrous back. Nonetheless, the Steelers defense has played very well this season outside of a couple big plays, oftentimes due to issue’s of Minkah’s tackling, or lack thereof as the post safety in single high looks.
Terrell Edmunds- A-
Terrell Edmunds, who seems to be getting better each week, played 48 defensive snaps and made plays in the box with two tackles, while also recording two pass breakups on the day, good for the first multiple pass breakup game of his career. On the Titans first drive of the third quarter, Edmunds did his best Mike Hilton impression, aligning as an apex defender at outside linebacker depth, before blitzing off the edge and beating a Corey Davis block to the inside with ease. Although Davis did get a piece of Edmunds, he had already been overleveraged, causing his block to propel Edmunds toward Derrick Henry, where Edmunds would make an impressive tackle for a one yard stop. Edmunds was in the backfield before Henry had taken the handoff, allowing the superstar back no room to gain speed downhill, an undeniable key to stopping Henry.
The very next play, with the Titans pinned to a third and long situation, the Steelers countered with a Cover 3 call, with Edmunds rotating down as the “sky” defender. At the snap, Edmunds stayed patient, rotating down to take away Adam Humphries on an over route from the slot, before getting his eyes on Corey Davis as he sat down on a deep curl route at the sticks. Edmunds immediately broke on the ball, reading Tannehill’s eyes the whole way, and nearly corralling a game changing pick, which ultimately will go into the stat sheet as a pass breakup.
Early in the fourth quarter with the Titans threatening at the one yard line, Terrell Edmunds, operating out of Cover 1, initially bit on play action before getting his head around, tracking the receivers near hip, and showing great eye discipline to play through the hands for a crucial pass breakup. Edmunds coverage has improved each week, and this week’s performance, with pass breakups in both zone and man assignments, depict a clear picture of Edmunds progress.
Edmunds clearly played his best game of the season, and perhaps of his career, recording two key pass breakups while helping the team defend Derrick Henry, routinely aligning at linebacker depth and defending the run with physicality. Moreover, Edmunds continued to help the Steelers shut down quality players at the tight end position, this time holding Jonnu Smith to one catch for a meager nine yards.
Cameron Sutton- A-
Cameron Sutton filled in admirably, replacing the injured Mike Hilton, logging a season high 33 snaps while producing in all phases, recording four solo tackles and two pass breakups in an impressive performance. Sutton nearly recorded his second interception in as many weeks while operating out of Cover 3, Sutton effectively disguised his alignment pre snap, before quickly getting out to his flat zone assignment. Sutton was able to undercut Corey Davis’s out route, reading Tannehill’s eyes perfectly, ultimately breaking up the pass and forcing an early three and out.
Just before half, while operating out of his Cover 2 hook/curl zone assignment, Sutton beautifully executed a two to one read, rerouting the slot receiver, before flying out of his break to lay a physical hit on Corey Davis, who had run a shallow dig. Initially an area of weakness in his game, Sutton’s tackling ability has drastically improved as he has become more comfortable and confident within the system. Later, on a third down attempt midway through the third quarter, Cameron Sutton made another impressive tackle while playing at the dimebacker spot, tasked with man coverage on Adam Firkser in a Cover 2 man call. Sutton stayed patient at the snap, waiting for Firkser to release off his chip, opting to play catch technique against the slower tight end, wrapping Firkser up at the catch point, and driving his legs through the tackle for an impressive finish well short of the sticks, forcing a crucial three and out in the process.
With the Titans set up for 2nd and 12, driving for a game tying field goal, Cameron Sutton recorded his second pass breakup of the game while covering an over route in a Cover 1 man assignment on Adam Humphries. Sutton aligned with outside leverage, staying patient off the snap before using an efficient break and speed to undercut Humphries for another near pick, ultimately getting two hands on the ball for a diving pass breakup.
Cameron Sutton was oftentimes the best defensive back on the field for the Steelers throughout the game, making plays on the football out of man and zone assignments, as well as tackling the catch extremely well, and forcing multiple third down stops. Sutton is certainly deserving of more defensive snaps, and subbing for Edmunds to singleback 11-personnel could be Sutton’s path to limited extra work once Mike Hilton eventually returns.
Sean Davis- C
Sean Davis continued to provide work for the Steelers across various special teams units, logging 14 snaps while failing to make an appearance on the stat sheet yet again. On the Titans first punt, Davis came through the A gap untouched off a twist assignment with Henry Mondeaux. However, upon breaking through the line, Davis appeared tentative, slowing down and attempting to block the punt with a single hand. Had Davis accelerated to the punter, kept his eyes on the punt, and shot his hands low, it appeared that he would have had a good chance at recording a game changing block.
Midway through the third quarter, Davis showed the effort he had been lacking on a Titans punt, coming off a twist and physically throwing a shoulder into the Titans blocker, allowing him to squirt free and make a diving attempt at a blocked punt, which barely missed. It’s plays like this that make it all the more frustrating when Davis takes plays off, as he clearly has the strength and athleticism to be a positive force on special teams for this team moving forward.
Sean Davis continues to provide serviceable, if not spectacular work on special teams on a weekly basis, ultimately showing a lack of desire and effort which prevents him from contributing on a noticeable level.
Jordan Dangerfield- B
Jordan Dangerfield continued to provide a steady veteran presence on special teams, logging 11 snaps across various units and recording a solo tackle on the day. Just before halftime, he got down the field with urgency before beating his blocker with an impressive outside move, and sticking Kalif Raymond at the Titans 10 yard line after a muff.
Even more impressive, Dangerfield was serving as the contain man on the kickoff, but quickly identified the muffed catch, beat his man, and secured a fifteen yard swing on the hidden yardage report, a massive play that will go relatively unnoticed. Pinning the Titans deep swung momentum in the Steelers favor, and allowed Mike Tomlin to be aggressive, forcing another possession, which culminated in McCloud’s 57 yard return and a Dionte Johnson score, putting the Steelers up 17 heading into half.
Dangerfield consistently makes at least one game changing play on special teams on a weekly basis, setting the physical tone for the Steelers on special teams, as well as helping the Steelers punt team function through his work as the personal protector.
Justin Layne- B
Justin Layne saw 12 defensive snaps as the right cornerback when the Steelers deployed their dime packages, while continuing to provide special teams work, logging 14 snaps across various units, and was credited with a tackle.
Just before half, playing his deep ¼ assignment while operating out of Cover 6, Layne stayed on top of a deep curl before rallying to the football underneath with urgency, and finishing with physicality to help the force fourth down. Layne looks comfortable playing zone coverages in the Steelers dime packages, and displayed the same physicality that helped get him drafted out of Michigan State back in April, 2019.
Early on in the third quarter, Layne produced a great rep, utilizing an impressive speed turn to keep leverage on the gunner off the line before squaring himself back up and using his impressive arm length to lock out the gunner, and keep him far away from Ray Ray McCloud, who had himself another nice 15 yard return. On the Titans next punt, Layne failed to get hands on the gunner, allowing an untouched runner at McCloud, who was forced to take the directional kick out of bounds.
Layne passed his first real test, playing fluidly in both zone and man assignments, while utilizing his length to reroute receivers, ultimately staying in phase, enough so that he was not targeted in his 12 Dime snaps. While his special teams work was not as consistent, I believe the Steelers may have found the key to an elite Dime package, with Layne’s serviceable play on the outside allowing Nelson, a far more talented coverage player than Mike Hilton, to bump to slot, where he’s played his best football recently.
James Pierre- A-
James Pierre continued to provide solid work on special teams, logging 13 snaps across various units while recording two solo tackles, one of which unfortunately was flagged for unnecessary roughness. On the opening kickoff, Pierre showed great urgency and speed, getting down the field rapidly, folding inside, and making contact with Kalif Raymond at the 13 yard line. While Pierre ultimately came in slightly out of control, allowing Raymond to shake him, it’s hard not to love Pierre’s effort, consistently putting himself in position to make play.
Just before half, Pierre recorded a great rep on McCloud’s 57 yard punt return, forcing his man inside off the line, before riding him into the ground with physicality. Pierre then tried to get in front of McCloud to throw another block, and had McCloud read his leverage better, Pierre was in position to make the touchdown scoring block. On the opening kickoff of the second half, Pierre recorded his first stop of the game, getting down the field with urgency, before retracing, beating the blocker, and tracking down Kalif Raymond’s near hip for a technically sound tackle. Pierre has been one of the best producers since his recent promotion to the kickoff unit, getting down the field with urgency and showing impressive physicality for a cornerback.
On the Titans first punt of the second half, Pierre controlled the gunner off the line with an impressive off hand jam, staying in the gunners hip pocket down the field, before using a nice “hip by” block to create a cutback lane for McCloud, who took the return for 15 yards. Later in the third quarter, on a Jordan Berry punt, James Pierre beat the jammer off the line with a clean speed release, using a combination of speed and physicality to stack the jammer and force a fair catch by Kalif Raymond.
Just before the end of the third, Pierre produced his most impressive rep of the day, showing unrelenting hustle to beat a double team, which harassed him all over the field, before finally freeing himself up to lay a physical stick on Kalif Raymond. Unfortunately, Pierre was flagged for an extremely questionable unnecessary roughness penalty, nonetheless, Pierre continues to stand out on tape as one of the Steelers best special teamers due to a combination of physicality and an unmatched motor.
James Pierre has become one of the Steelers most impactful special teamers on a weekly basis, standing out on tape for his relentless effort, speed, and physicality. While Pierre has yet to play on defense, he has earned his hat moving forward, and is starting to have the feel of a guy who can stick around in this league for a while because of exemplary special teams work.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 23% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 21% of their defensive snaps, totaling a season low 44% of their defensive snaps spent in sub packages. While this represents far and away the lowest number of the year, it can be chalked up to a combination of stopping a Derrick Henry led rushing offense, in addition to Mike Hilton’s absence, which made it much tougher to play Nickel without giving up run defense. The Steelers secondary produced a solid, yet not extraordinary performance, allowing the Titans to get back into the game on big plays to A.J. Brown, but clamping down with the game on the line.
The Steelers were able to give Tannehill and the Titans passing offense fits while deploying Cover 2 and Cover 6 zone calls, creating confusion for Tannehill, and nearly picking off multiple passes. Ultimately, I am not overly worried about the secondary after giving up tight window contested catches to a super bowl contending team, particularly one possessing a bonafide number one receiver and a quarterback playing borderline elite football since his arrival in Tennessee. The secondary has fixed the issues plaguing them earlier in the season, where they failed to contest receivers at the catch point routinely, and, thus, must look to limit the splash plays through the air which have plagued them in recent weeks.
Subsequently, moving into a heated matchup against the division rival Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers defensive backs must take away the deep ball, tackle the catch, and force Lamar Jackson to make contested, tight window throws to the sidelines. Moreover, it will be intriguing to see if the Steelers can do to Mark Andrews, the Ravens top receiving option, what they have done to the slew of talented tight ends on their schedule thus far, and limit his impact in a Baltimore passing game lacking elite receivers. Against a Ravens offensive line that has already allowed 15 sacks through six games, the Steelers secondary could have a chance to capitalize on errant throws, potentially helping the Steelers stay undefeated and establish firm control over the AFC North lead.