In their Week 10 matchup against the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, who entered the game fresh off an upset of the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers dominated throughout, cruising to a comfortable 36-10 victory, and remaining undefeated. The Steelers corrected their recent struggles, deploying a heavy mix of man coverage concepts throughout the game, particularly on possession downs, where they were able to hold the Bengals to a putrid 0-13 finish. The Steelers frequently tasked Minkah Fitzpatrick with bracketing Tyler Boyd over the middle in their Cover 1 schemes, taking away Burrow’s security blanket and forcing him to throw outside of the numbers.
Overall, the Steelers secondary helped hold Joe Burrow to a line of 21/40, 213 yards, and one touchdown, while simultaneously forcing him to hold onto the football, allowing the pass rush to get home for four sacks on the day. Moreover, the Steelers lone defensive forced turnover of the day came on a yet another forced fumble by Cam Sutton, this time recovered by Steven Nelson. Sutton has made a concerted effort to go for the strip on nearly every tackle attempt over the course of the 2020 season and it’s great to see his work beginning to come to fruition.
Ultimately, outside of an early first half blown coverage allowing Tee Higgins to come wide open downfield, the Steelers secondary had a flawless afternoon, and unquestionably produced their best performance of the season thus far. The Steelers coaching staff made significant adjustments, deploying Nickel and Dime sets with frequency just a week after their propensity to stay in 3-4 base and deploy zone coverages allowed Garrett Gilbert to exploit mismatches out of 11-personnel. The Steelers secondary is consistently at its best when asked to play man coverage, where they can force quarterbacks to hold onto the football and make contested throws.
Moving forward into a road matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I would expect an uptick in 3-4 base to shutdown a potent rushing attack led by James Robinson, however, the Steelers should absolutely continue deploying their Cover 1 man concepts on possession downs. Jake Luton struggled against a pedestrian Packers defense, finishing with a line of 18-35, 169 yards, and a 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio, presenting the Steelers secondary with an opportunity to help the team build on its league leading 17 takeaways en route to another road victory.
Joe Haden- A
In week 10, Joe Haden produced his best performance of the season, logging 60 snaps while recording four tackles and three pass deflections, all of which came on possession downs. On the Bengals first third down attempt, Haden was tasked with man coverage on A.J. Green with no safety help, as both safety’s were tasked with bracketing the slot receivers, and taking away the intermediate middle of the field. Haden played with outside leverage, allowing Green to release freely before identifying the post route as Green broke to the middle, tracking the ball beautifully in the air, and getting a hand across for an acrobatic pass breakup. With the Bengals facing another third and long on their next possession, Joe Haden was once again deployed in man coverage, this time on Auden Tate. Understanding that he had inside help from Terrell Edmunds, Haden played off coverage with heavy outside leverage, staying in Tate’s hip pocket as he broke toward the sideline, and getting his right hand across for another impressive pass breakup.
On Tee Higgins long 54 yard reception, which put the Bengals in position for their lone touchdown, Joe Haden appeared to be the focal point of a coverage breakdown, buzzing down into the flat as the remainder of the defense operated out of Cover 3. Thus, as Tee Higgins ran a slot fade into Haden’s vacated deep 1/3, he found himself wide open, and would’ve scored an easy touchdown if not for a great angle taken by Minkah. To echo the sentiments of Coach Tomlin, it’s better to learn from a win than from a loss, nonetheless, these coverage breakdowns must be repaired before looming playoff matchups with contenders like the Kansas City Chiefs, who are built to punish said mishaps with touchdowns.
On the Bengals first drive of the second half, Joe Haden continued to display elite tackling on the edge, coming out of his Cover 2 flat zone assignment to hold Giovanni Bernard to a short gain of three yards. Haden aligned in off coverage, gaining depth with patience before triggering Burrow’s pass to the flat and shooting low to bring down Bernard immediately, allowing no yards after the catch and forcing Cincinnati into another third and long.
One play later, Haden closed out the Bengals drive, blanketing an Auden Tate comeback route while operating out of Cover 1, recording his third pass breakup and forcing yet another three and out. Haden aligned in off coverage with inside leverage before contacting Tate at the top of his route, staying in phase as he broke back to the football, and getting his right hand across for another impressive breakup. Late in the fourth quarter, Haden once again displayed elite zone instincts while operating out of a Cover 2 flat zone assignment. At the snap, Haden gained depth patiently with a shuffle technique, eying the #2 receiver, before exploding out of his break and finishing with physicality to bring down Tyler Boyd after a short gain of three yards, allowing no room for yards after the catch.
Overall, Joe Haden had his best game of the season in week 10, contesting the catch point all day and tackling efficiently, simultaneously helping the Steelers blank the Bengals offense on third down attempts. While Haden no longer possesses top level athleticism, his combination of veteran technique, football IQ, and film study allow him to cause problems for opposing offenses out of a variety of coverage schemes. Through nine games, Joe Haden is leading the team with eight pass breakups while simultaneously making key third down stops in the tackling department as well. Not too bad for a guy that was written off and cut by Cleveland back in 2017.
Steven Nelson- A-
Steven Nelson continued to produce in week 10, logging 60 snaps while recording a pair of tackles and a pass deflection on a day where he was not targeted with frequency. With the Bengals behind their chains early in the first quarter, they opted for a slant route to Tee Higgins, attempting to get some of their lost yardage back. While Nelson has struggled recently against slants, this time he was deployed in a Cover 2 flat zone assignment, and thus was able to stay patient, break efficiently, and tackle Higgins immediately, allowing no yards after the catch and setting up an early third and long.
Midway through the third quarter, operating out of a deep 1/3 zone assignment in Cover 3, Nelson nearly recorded his third pick of the season, showing patience at the sticks and undercutting an A.J. Green 15 yard out route. Nelson showed great football IQ, understanding that although he had a deep 1/3 zone, most teams prefer to attack the sticks on third down, allowing him to jump the route and nearly create a splash play on a day where he was rarely targeted. Nelson was ultimately credited with a pass breakup on the rep, getting just enough of a hand on the ball to change its flight trajectory and force an A.J. Green sideline drop.
Early in the third quarter, Nelson continued to display ideal physicality at the boundary corner position, shedding Tee Higgins stock block to make a physical hit on Samaje Perine, who had galloped into the second level. The entire secondary appears to have made a concerted effort to improve their tackling woes from early in the season, tackling well and thus containing explosive plays.
Steven Nelson played extremely well against Cincinnati, helping shut down A.J. Green, while once again rarely being tested. The one area where teams had success against Nelson recently had been slant routes, an area where Nelson improved drastically this past week, staying in phase and tackling the catch point effectively. While Nelson has not been as active at the catch point on the season, recording three pass deflections to Haden’s eight, he has rarely been targeted recently, a testament to his tight man coverage.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- A-
Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to produce in the tackling department in week 10, logging six solo stops in his 60 snaps, while helping to frequently confuse Joe Burrow as the robber defender in the Steelers Cover 1 scheme. On the Bengals lone touchdown scoring drive, Minkah tackled the big play well, recording back to back touchdown saving tackles on broken plays, the first a run up the gut by Samaje Perine, followed by Tee Higgins coming wide open on a blown coverage.
Minkah’s tackling has continued to improve over the past month, and this game provided more of the same, with sound angles and tackling in the open field helping prevent explosive plays. Later in the same drive, Minkah filled the alley with intent, bringing Giovanni Bernard down short of the goal line and forcing the Bengals to earn it on third down.
Minkah had an outstanding game in defending both the run and pass, although the box score likely won’t explain the whole story, with no interceptions or pass breakups recorded. Nonetheless, Minkah was crucial in the Steelers ability to frustrate Burrow, often aligning near the line of scrimmage and occupying the intermediate middle of the field, taking away Burrow’s first reads and making him throw outside the numbers. Minkah’s presence alone makes quarterbacks hold onto the football, allowing the pass rush to get home and force errant throws. While this secondary is flooded with talent, Fitzpatrick is truly the glue that makes their Cover 1 blitz schemes so lethal, taking away the middle of the field routinely, and setting a physical tone in all facets of the game.
Terrell Edmunds- A-
Terrell Edmunds continued to produce, particularly in the run game, logging 59 snaps while recording a team leading eight tackles and wreaking havoc in the box. Midway through the first quarter, Edmunds was tasked with a man coverage assignment against Tyler Boyd as the cap defender, replacing the blitzing Antoine Brooks Jr. in a Cover 1 scheme. At the snap, Edmunds rolled down into a catch man technique, staying patient before getting to Boyd’s hip and squeezing him to the sideline, subsequently causing Burrow’s pass to sail harmlessly out of bounds.
Later in the first quarter, aligned at linebacker depth, Edmunds inserted immediately through the A-gap at the snap, broke down, and brought down Giovani Bernard after a gain of one yard. Midway through the second quarter, Edmunds continued to wreak havoc in the backfield, once again aligned at linebacker depth, this time inserting through the C-gap, avoiding a Mike Thomas crack block, and combining with Tyson Alualu to stop Giovani Bernard after a gain of two yards.
Edmunds had one of his best performances of the season, helping bracket the Bengals receivers on the inside and forcing Joe Burrow to target the Steelers boundary corners, particularly on possession downs. Moreover, Edmunds was an absolute menace in the box, coming from linebacker depth to wreak havoc on the Bengals run game, and punishing ball carriers with physicality. While Edmunds could certainly stand to improve as a blitzer, the return of Mike Hilton should certainly ease his usage there, and allow him to continue flourishing in his current role.
Cameron Sutton- A
Cameron Sutton continued to produce splash in Mike Hilton’s absence, recording five tackles, a tackle for a loss, and forcing a fumble for the third consecutive week. Midway through the first quarter, while serving as the “safety” on the kickoff unit, Cam Sutton stepped up to fill the alley and made a technically sound tackle to stop Brandon Wilson at the 21 yard line, producing a net positive in the hidden yardage department.
On the ensuing possession, with the Steelers operating out of Cover 2, Sutton came from his Nickel spot to tackle a Giovani Bernard swing pass for a loss of four yards. At the snap, Sutton displayed great zone presence, driving to take away Burrow’s #1 read before attacking Bernard’s swing pass under control and with proper leverage, corralling Bernard for a loss, and forcing the Bengals into another third and long attempt.
Later, just before the end of the first quarter, Cameron Sutton rolled down to cover Tyler Boyd out of a slot, serving as a cap defender to the blitzing Terrell Edmunds in a Cover 1 scheme. Sutton disguised his alignment well, playing with patience at the snap before breaking on the whip route and narrowly missing a diving attempt at the ball, ultimately allowing a 20 yard catch and run to Boyd. On the very next snap, deployed a Cover 1 man coverage assignment working out of the slot against Tee Higgins, Sutton redeemed himself, ripping the ball loose for his third forced fumble in three weeks. Sutton aligned in off coverage before displaying great patience and flying out of his break to contest the slant route, arriving with physicality and throwing Higgins to the turf as he ripped the ball loose.
Late in the third quarter, playing man coverage in the slot while operating out of a Cover 1 robber look, Sutton snuffed out a pick route designed for Tyler Boyd, tackling him in the flat for no gain and forcing another three and out. Sutton aligned in off coverage vs the four wide receiver bunch set, allowing himself room to avoid the pick routes over the top before closing and finishing through Boyd with physicality, allowing no room for yards after the catch.
Cam Sutton undoubtedly had his best game of the season against Cincinnati, staying in phase with receivers and contesting the catch point throughout the game. Sutton’s improvement in the tackling department has been a joy to watch, and makes him an ideal fit for the Steelers sub-packages. With forced fumbles in three consecutive games, the latter two resulting in turnovers, Sutton is certainly making the most of his opportunity, using his football IQ and physicality to create splash plays on an elite defense.
Jordan Dangerfield- A-
Jordan Dangerfield continued to garner substantial special teams work in week 10, logging 26 snaps across various units while recording an impressive solo tackle on the kickoff unit.
Just before half, serving as the contain man on the kickoff unit, Dangerfield displayed his physicality, diving underneath a blocker to trip up Brandon Wilson at the 22 yard line. Dangerfield is the physical tone setter for this young Steelers special teams core, and each game you can point to numerous plays that depict his value as a special teams captain.
Jordan Dangerfield continues to provide a steady veteran presence for an extremely young Steelers special teams core, making extraordinary effort plays and setting a physical tone on a weekly basis. Dangerfield has also served as the personnel protector on the punt unit all season, a unit which has allowed no blocks and minimal pressure since the arrival of Jordan Berry, a testament to Dangerfield’s football IQ.
Antoine Brooks Jr- B
In week 10, Antoine Brooks Jr saw his first defensive action of the season, logging 28 snaps in the Steelers Nickel and Dime packages, and providing quality reps while recording a pair of tackles.
On Tee Higgins touchdown, Antoine Brooks Jr. made the mistake of aligning at the same level as Steven Nelson, limiting his vision and making the pick play far too easy for the Bengals to execute. Had Brooks Jr. aligned at depth, he likely could have diagnosed the pick route, and broke on Higgins, contesting the catch and giving the Steelers a chance in the situation. On the final Bengals drive before half, Brooks Jr displayed solid zone presence and pursuit, rallying to the football to record two stops on the drive, showing a clear upgrade in physicality from his predecessor Justin Layne.
Overall, I came away intrigued with Antoine Brooks Jr.’s performance in his first snaps of the season, in which he tackled well, but also showed better man coverage skills than what he had shown on the college tape at Maryland. Nonetheless, Brooks certainly doesn’t possess the man coverage skills of Cameron Sutton or even Mike Hilton, making it hard to justify snaps for him upon Hilton’s return. One role where Brooks Jr. could continue to gain snaps would be the Big Nickel package that the Steelers deployed periodically against the Bengals, allowing them to match 11 personnel with five defensive backs, while also having three safeties in run defense.
Sean Davis- B+
Sean Davis continued to garner special teams work, recording 9 snaps across various units, while also seeing late game snaps on defense in the blowout, finishing the game with a pair of tackles.
On the first kickoff of the second quarter, Sean Davis executed a great leverage block, baiting his man into diving inside before burying him with physicality, springing McCloud for an extra 10 yards in the process. On the games final series, Sean Davis, playing at strong safety, made a pair of tackles on consecutive plays, taking effective angles and finishing with physicality from the second level.
Overall, Sean Davis produced arguably his best performance of the season on special teams, showing improved desire and physicality, particularly on the kick return unit, where he had previously struggled. Moreover, Davis continued to provide solid protection on the punt unit, squaring up defenders with physicality, and allowing no pressure off the edge. While Davis can’t be happy about getting jumped by Antoine Brooks Jr., he performed well in minimal snaps at the end of the blowout win, tackling efficiently.
Justin Layne- A-
Against Cincinnati, Justin Layne saw his Dime snaps absorbed by Antoine Brooks Jr., but rebounded well, recording an impressive solo tackle in his season high 25 special teams snaps. Layne was also able to garner defensive snaps on the Bengals final drive in the blowout, 36-10 win.
On the Steelers first punt of the second half, Layne beat his man cleanly off the line with an outside speed release, stacking the Bengals jammer with speed and finishing with a physical stick on Alex Erickson, who was lucky to hold onto the football. Ultimately, Layne helped produce a 58 yard net punt, flipping the field and pinning the Bengals inside their own 20 yard line.
On the first Bengals punt of the fourth quarter, Justin Layne beat the jammer cleanly with a smooth inside speed release, beating his man with speed down the sideline and forcing Alex Erickson to let the punt bounce inside the 10. The punt would ultimately be downed by James Pierre at the Cincinnati 3 yard line, culminating in a massive 62 yard net for Jordan Berry, and securing ideal field position for the Steelers defense.
Later, on Ray Ray McCloud’s 42 yard punt return, Layne produced another great rep, displaying ideal effort and physicality. Layne fought the Bengals gunner all the way down the field before smartly allowing McCloud to make the man miss, flipping around and getting out in front to make a key lead block, springing McCloud free toward the sideline.
Although Layne certainly can’t be happy with being replaced in the Steelers Dime package, he arguably produced his best game of the season on special teams. On two separate reps, Layne was able to beat the Bengals jammer, and arrived to affect the returner, resulting in nets of 58 and 62 yards for Jordan Berry. Moreover, Layne’s two key blocks on the same punt return helped spring McCloud for his lengthy 42 yard return, which set up the Steelers final touchdown.
James Pierre- B
James Pierre continued to garner special teams work, logging a season high 24 snaps across various units, simultaneously recording his first defensive snaps of the season. On the Bengals second punt of the game, Pierre was beat cleanly off the line by the gunner, allowing a free runner at Ray-Ray McCloud. Nonetheless, Pierre displayed magnificent effort, chasing the gunner 40 yards and providing a “hip by” block as McCloud fielded the punt, creating just enough space for McCloud to squirt free for a 15 yard return.
On the Bengals next punt, Pierre did a much better job of getting to the gunner’s hip, displaying patience off the line before getting tangled up with the gunner, sending both crashing to the ground. While Pierre was ultimately flagged for a hold on the play, tape generally seems to show that they tripped with their legs entangled. Nonetheless, 9/10 times that a gunner is taken to the ground, a penalty of some sort will result, as was the case here.
Early in the second quarter, Pierre was able to beat the Bengals jammer with a smooth single stick release, eventually stacking him and forcing a fair catch at the 10 yard line. On the final Bengals punt of the third quarter, Pierre once again allowed the gunner a free release, showing a lack of hip mobility and allowing himself to be stacked, eventually forcing Ray Ray McCloud to signal for a fair catch. Pierre displays great effort and physicality but can occasionally be caught off guard with speed releases, an aspect of his game he should work to improve in the coming weeks.
While James Pierre did not have his best game of the season on special teams, his unmatched effort still allowed him to impact the game on numerous different occasions. Pierre has continued to produce well as a gunner and on the kickoff unit, but still has some room for improvement as a jammer on the punt return unit. Nonetheless, Pierre’s presence has helped the Steelers special teams units improve drastically, serving on three separate units and providing an infectious effort on every play.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 54% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 31%, totaling 85% of their total defensive snaps set in sub packages, establishing a new season high, more than double their usage against Dallas. The Steelers coaching staff learned from their mistakes in prior weeks, matching personnel, which led to a much higher output in sub-package usage. Moreover, with less room for Cincinnati to attack personnel based mismatches, the results showed, with Pittsburgh’s defense holding the Bengals to 10 points, and 0-13 on third down for the day.
Week 10 saw the Steelers finally work back to their staple Cover 1, forcing Joe Burrow to make tight window throws outside the numbers against sticky man coverage all afternoon. While the Steelers secondary, particularly Joe Haden, can make plays out of zone, I firmly believe that zone should be used as a supplement to the teams man heavy scheme, which certainly plays better to the teams strengths.
Ultimately, the Steelers secondary did more than enough to win, recording four pass breakups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery as a unit, while allowing only one touchdown drive on the day. When the secondary is deployed in man coverage, opposing quarterbacks consistently are forced to hold onto the ball, allowing the pass rush to get home and wreak havoc as we saw once again in Week 10. With a matchup looming against Jake Luton and the 1-8 Jacksonville Jaguars, I would expect the Steelers secondary to deploy a similar gameplan, featuring a heavy influx of man coverage while matching personnel to avoid exploitable mismatches.