In their week nine matchup against the reeling, 2-7 Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers trailed by as much as 13 points before rallying behind Ben Roethlisberger’s playmaking and timely defensive stops to secure a tight, 24-19 win. In part due to a game plan that featured an uptick in zone coverage usage, the Steelers secondary was partially responsible for allowing Garrett Gilbert to finish the game 21/38, with 243 passing yards and a touchdown. Nonetheless, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Sutton forced two crucial turnovers, a forced fumble which netted the Steelers a field goal before half, and a red zone interception which took points off the board late in the second half.
Overall, the secondary certainly failed to make enough plays at the catch point, recording only a pair of pass deflections, both courtesy of Minkah, however, the Cowboys propensity to attack the Steelers linebackers in their zone drops certainly factored into the equation. Moreover, throughout the game, the Steelers defensive backs helped hold the Cowboys 0-2 on red zone conversions, with Minkah producing a game changing turnover, corralling a second half interception in the end zone.
The most disheartening statistic exiting the Week 9 matchup would be allowing the Garrett Gilbert led offense to convert 8-17 on third down, good for a 47% clip, with multiple third and long conversions allowed for the third consecutive week. The Steelers defense is currently ranked 20th in the NFL, allowing opponents to convert third down attempts at a 44% clip, a stat which they will need to improve on as they approach the playoff stretch.
Ultimately, it’s hard to fault the Steelers secondary which produced two key turnovers, tackled the catch well in zone assignments, and tackled well downfield to contain explosive runs. Moving forward, I would like to see the Steelers move back toward deploying their staple Cover 1 in lieu of their recent deployment of Cover 3 on possession downs. Entering a game against the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, who’s offensive line has shown holes, allowing an average of 3.5 sacks per game, the Steelers coaching staff has a great opportunity to return to their Cover 1 man blitzing identity. While Joe Burrow presents a unique challenge with his legs outside of the pocket, I trust the Steelers front seven to generate consistent pressure, potentially allowing the secondary to capitalize on pressures and tipped balls.
Joe Haden- B+
Joe Haden continued to build on his productive season against the Cowboys, playing all 72 defensive snaps while recording five tackles in total, none more significant than a late stop on Ezekiel Elliot which helped seal the game. One largely significant, yet underrated contribution from Haden came at the onset of the second quarter, when he successfully fielded a punt return in the Steelers “punt safe” defense. Haden showed all the textbook fundamentals of a returner, signaling fair catch, effectively tracking the punt in the air, squaring his shoulders to the punt, and catching the punt with his elbows tucked in tightly to his body. On a day where the Steelers special teams units suffered one disaster after another, Joe Haden made sure to execute on this routine play, performing admirably for a guy that hadn’t fielded a punt since back in 2016 with Cleveland.
Later, at the onset of the second quarter, Haden was tasked with a deep ⅓ zone assignment in Cover 3 while the Cowboys drew up a flood concept to the field. Haden initially carried Michael Gallup’s nine route with outside leverage, maintaining zone eyes, before cutting off his drop to break on a fifteen yard out route, laying a physical tackle on Dalton Schultz, and allowing no yards after the catch in the process. While Bud Dupree failed to gain proper depth in his flat zone on the play to allow the routine catch, placing outside linebackers in tough coverage matchups routinely hurt the Steelers throughout the contest. Merely three plays later, the Cowboys once again attacked an outside linebacker mismatch, this time isolating T.J. Watt on CeeDee Lamb with the Steelers operating out of Cover 6, and ultimately scoring a touchdown on the play. The Cowboys motioned to bunch trips pre-snap, ultimately using two post routes to occupy the quarters cornerback and safety, and thus isolating T.J. Watt to carry CeeDee Lamb vertically on a wheel route. Hence, although many on twitter quickly jumped to the conclusion that Joe Haden was responsible for vertical help on this rep, in reality, the Cowboys were able to effectively force a linebacker to cover a receiver through overloading the quarters coverage vertically.
On the first Dallas drive of the second half, Haden aligned in man coverage on the talented Michael Gallup, working out of Cover 1 blitz. Haden displayed patience, slowly backpedaling before exploding out of his break to offer a physical contest across the middle on Gallup’s slant. Although Gallup ultimately corralled this pass, plays like these help depict Joe Haden’s efficacy in coverage, as he is consistently contesting receivers at the catch point and thus making receivers work to earn every yard. Later in the same drive, with Garrett Gilbert predetermined to take a downfield shot toward the end zone, Joe Haden blanketed Michael Gallup on his nine route. At the snap, Haden utilized a press bail zone turn, squeezing Gallup to the sideline and giving Gilbert no space to place the football, causing him to chuck it harmlessly out of the back of the end zone.
On the ensuing Cowboys drive, with the Steelers operating out of Cover 2, Joe Haden disguised his alignment before breaking instantly to undercut a Tony Pollard hitch route, which would have been intercepted if not for an overthrow by Garrett Gilbert. Later, protecting a five point lead after the two minute warning, Joe Haden displayed the football IQ and toughness that make him so valuable in Pittsburgh even at age 31. Operating out of Cover 2 man to a nub tight end set, Haden effectively communicated the Texas concept which had killed the Steelers all game, passing the tight end to Vince Williams and picking up Ezekiel Elliot’s angle route. As Garret Gilbert miraculously threw out of T.J. Watt’s grasp, hitting Ezekiel Elliot, Haden immediately wrapped up and executed a textbook hawk roll tackle, holding Zeke to a gain of one yard and forcing a 4th and long attempt.
Against Dallas, Joe Haden continued to live around the ball, contesting receivers at the catch point in both man and zone assignments. Moreover, Haden’s tackling was as solid as ever, and his stop on Zeke was immense in determining the outcome of the contest. Haden has made a living at the catch point in recent weeks, and thus, I think it is reasonable to expect him to produce a turnover sooner rather than later, likely working out of Cover 2 or a Cover 4 palms trap look.
Steven Nelson- B
Steven Nelson continued to garner extensive work against Dallas, playing on 93% of the team’s defensive snaps and recording two tackles during a relatively quiet outing. Midway through the Cowboys opening drive, Steven Nelson cleanly executed a run fit off the edge, coming off the edge quickly to bring Ezekiel Elliot down after a short gain. Nelson initially aligned as an overhang defender to the tight end-wing set, before inserting into the box at the snap, breaking down, and upending Zeke after a short four yard gain on a cutback run.
Shortly before halftime, Steven Nelson was tasked with a Cover 1 man coverage assignment working out of the slot against Amari Cooper, continuing to display his ability to rally and tackle well from the position. While Amari Cooper was initially able to create space on a whip route with help from a pick, Nelson capitalized on Cooper’s inability to keep his footing, rallying quickly to the football and bringing Cooper down well short of the sticks to force a field goal attempt. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers protecting a five point lead, Nelson was tasked with a man coverage assignment on Amari Cooper in a Cover 1 blitz call. Nelson utilized a shuffle technique to gain depth before breaking on Cooper’s slant route, nonetheless, Nelson had allowed himself to be out leveraged and missed the ensuing tackle, allowing Cooper to scamper for 14 yards. While I am generally fine with allowing a slant route in this situation, it is on Steven Nelson to stay in phase and make the tackle immediately, allowing minimal yards after the catch in a game winning drive scenario.
Overall, Steven Nelson rarely appeared on tape outside of his two solo stops, which is generally considered to be a good thing for a cornerback. Teams have strayed away from attacking Nelson downfield in recent weeks, a testament to his coverage acumen and makeup speed. Rather, teams have chosen to continually attack Nelson on slant routes, which appear to be the one concept giving him trouble currently.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- A
In week nine, Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to build on his recent streak of dominant play, playing all 72 defensive snaps while logging six tackles, two pass deflections, a fumble recovery, and a clutch red zone interception. On the Cowboys opening drive, Tony Pollard burst through a massive hole created by his offensive line, scampering into the secondary and toward the sideline. Fitzpatrick saved a touchdown on the play, taking a great angle, and bringing Pollard down with physicality after a 20 yard gain, even attempting an unsuccessful “peanut punch” in the process.
At the onset of the second half, the Cowboys tried to catch the Steelers sleeping with a misdirection reverse by Amari Cooper. Although the majority of the defense was fooled by the misdirection, Fitzpatrick stayed home, closed space, forced a cutback, and brought Cooper down with physicality after a short eight yard gain. Later, with the Cowboys threatening deep in the Steelers red zone to begin the fourth quarter, Minkah continued to display elite tackling, this time bringing Zeke down with physicality after a gain of 10. At the snap Minkah rolled down into the box, meeting Zeke as he galloped untouched into the second level, and once again upending the big back with physicality.
Just three plays later, operating as the post safety in a Cover 1 blitz, Minkah took advantage of a wobbly pass from Garrett Gilbert, who had sustained a hit from Cam Heyward on his release, corralling the pick in the end zone and taking points off the board. While I have criticized Minkah in the past for his propensity to get caught with his eyes in the backfield around the goal line, it is plays such as this game altering interception which are a product of his risky style of play.
On the game’s final play, with the Steelers playing a prevent sticks defense at the end zone line, Minkah Fitzpatrick once again secured the game sealing pass breakup. Minkah stayed patient, keeping his feet planted and reading Garrett Gilbert, before utilizing an efficient break to undercut a throw intended for CeeDee Lamb, nearly nabbing another pick, but knocking the ball harmlessly to the turf nonetheless.
After an up and down start to the season, Minkah has performed outstandingly in three of the Steelers past four games, perhaps none dominant than his week nine outing, where he controlled the middle of the field with physicality and helped produce a pair of turnovers. While Minkah’s freelancing can certainly get the Steelers into trouble at times, the splash plays that he creates for the defense more than make up for said miscues. Moving forward, I would love to see Minkah continue to tackle efficiently from the post safety slot, as the Steelers are a significantly better defense when he’s locked in physically.
Terrell Edmunds- B
Terrell Edmunds continued to play extensively in week nine, logging 59 defensive snaps while recording five tackles in a productive outing. Early in the second half, operating out of Cover 2 on third down, Edmunds quickly diagnosed run action, and inserted into the box to lay a physical hit on Tony Pollard after a 12 yard gain. Although it is utterly unacceptable to allow a run conversion on third and long, effective tackling on the backend of a defense helps prevent ten yard runs from becoming explosive plays and long touchdowns.
Just three plays later, Edmunds, who had aligned pre-snap in the will linebacker spot, inserted into the backfield immediately, beating Amari Cooper’s crack block with ease and tackling Zeke for no gain. Edmunds has consistently made plays when aligned near the line of scrimmage, where he can utilize his unique combination of explosiveness and speed to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Later, following a long fourth quarter kickoff return, Edmunds continued to wreak havoc in the box versus the Dallas run game. Edmunds aligned on the line of scrimmage, over the tackle pre snap, before boxing the block with his shoulder, flowing down the line, staying clean, and stopping Zeke after another short gain.
Against Dallas, Edmunds produced a quiet, yet productive afternoon, rarely tested in coverage, yet still making several key stops in the box against the run game. Edmunds is clearly at his best around the line of scrimmage, where he does the grunt work using his athleticism and physicality to wreak havoc in the run game, making him an ideal compliment for the rangy Minkah Fitzpatrick. Moving forward, I would like to see Edmunds continue to work toward producing more splash plays in all facets of the game, while continuing to do work in the box.
Cameron Sutton- B+
Cameron Sutton continued to fill in admirably for Mike Hilton against the Cowboys, logging 40 defensive snaps, recording four tackles, and using an impressive “peanut punch” to force a fumble for the second week in a row, this one resulting in a crucial turnover. With the Cowboys facing a third and short to begin their first possession, the Steelers dialed up Cover 1, tasking Cameron Sutton with a man coverage assignment on the talented Amari Cooper, who had aligned in the slot. Inexplicably, Sutton aligned with heavy inside leverage at the snap, opening the gate and failing to get hands on Cooper, allowing the receiver to run past him uncontested for a long grab down the sideline. Ideally, you would like to see Sutton stay more patient at the snap and widen Cooper to the sideline with physicality, making it a much tougher throw for Gilbert while simultaneously protecting opposite his inside help.
Just before half, tasked with a scf(seam-curl-flat) zone assignment in Cover 3, Sutton displayed patience, re-routing CeeDee Lamb before buzzing to the flat. Upon noticing that Lamb had caught the ball, Sutton broke toward the receiver, deploying yet another impressive “peanut punch”, knocking the ball loose, and into Minkah’s hands for a crucial turnover, putting three more points on the board before half.
On Rico Dowdle’s lengthy 64 yard fourth quarter kick return, Cam Sutton displayed phenomenal effort, coming from the weak side safety slot to track Dowdle down as he attempted to cut back at the Steelers 36 yard line. Had Sutton not tracked down the returner, Chris Boswell would have been left one on one in open field with the return man, a less than ideal sight for Steelers supporters.
Midway through the fourth quarter, on a crucial 3rd and 7, Sutton was tasked with a difficult man coverage assignment against Amari Cooper while operating out of Cover 1. Sutton aligned in press coverage, hopping to outside leverage pre-snap, mirroring Cooper off the line, and disrupting the timing of Cooper’s out route with a physical off hand jam at the top of the route, ultimately causing the pass to sail harmlessly to the turf. While Sutton has been great this year in coverage, I maintain that good things happen when cornerbacks play Cover 1 with proper outside leverage, as evidenced once again by Sutton’s clutch third down stop.
Cam Sutton continues to produce in Mike Hilton’s absence, causing a forced fumble on an aggressive “peanut punch” for the second week in a row, meanwhile providing quality reps from the safety, cornerback, and Dime backer slots. Moving forward, this team needs to find a way to carve out extra reps for Sutton upon Hilton’s return, potentially in lieu of Terrell Edmunds in situationally dependent Nickel snaps. Nonetheless, Sutton should be a top priority for this team in free agency, and has shown the skills to remain a starter on this unit for years to come.
Jordan Dangerfield- A
Jordan Dangefield continued to warrant extensive special teams snaps after sitting out against Baltimore, logging 15 special teams snaps across various units and making an impressive shoe-string tackle to save a long punt return touchdown. On the game’s opening kick return, Dangerfield displayed great effort and technique, executing his kick out block with physicality, and creating a lane for McCloud to cut inside and past the 25 yard line.
Midway through the second quarter, on C.J. Goodwin’s 83 yard punt return, Jordan Dangerfield displayed textbook effort and football IQ, taking a perfect angle to track Goodwin down at the 11 yard line, and simultaneously drawing a penalty in the process. Upon noticing the trickeration, Dangerfield immediately transitioned into a full sprint with a proper angle, traveling over 100 yards to cut off Goodwin, absorbing a block in the back from Darian Thompson, and ultimately tackling Goodwin from the ground. While Dangerfierld’s effort has never been questioned, nonetheless, it’s plays like this that depict Dangerfield’s value to this team as a special teams captain and a tone setter for the younger players.
Although the special teams unit suffered its worst performance of the season, Jordan Dangerfield continued to produce in his return, setting a physical tone for the unit and displaying exemplary effort. The punt return tackle in particular was one of the most spectacular effort plays I’ve seen in my lifetime, and should make fans proud to call Jordan Dangerfield a Steeler.
Sean Davis- B-
Sean Davis continued to garner reps on special teams against Dallas, logging his first defensive snap of the season and 10 special teams snaps, yet failing to appear on the stat sheet yet again. On the Steelers second punt, Davis surprised me, showing great urgency getting downfield in coverage, and helping Jayrone Elliot bring down the return man. Although the Cowboys had bluffed a rush, Davis quickly diagnosed that his man was not rushing, allowing him to transition phases, beat his assigned blocker downfield, and help hold the Cowboys returner to a miniscule three yard return.
Interestingly enough, Davis recorded one snap in what could potentially be categorized as a “big nickel” package, covering Tony Pollard out of Cover 1 on a play which was blown up by instant pressure from T.J. Watt.
While Davis certainly performed better than he had in recent weeks, he still often appears to lack the motor which would allow him to unlock another level of production. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see Davis show more effort in the coverage phase in his work on the punt unit, sans C.J. Goodwin’s return where Davis took one of the worst angles imaginable.
Justin Layne- C+
Justin Layne continued to receive work on defense and special teams against the Cowboys, logging 13 defensive snaps and 10 special teams snaps, while recording a tackle in the process. Late in the third quarter, with the Cowboys facing 3rd and 9, they chose to run a simple power play out of shotgun, trusting Zeke to gain the necessary nine yards. Justin Layne, who aligned pre-snap as an overhang defender to the nub tight end set, quickly inserted into the box, diving to trip up Zeke, who displayed great balance and nearly squirmed for the first down, ultimately falling just one yard short. While it is always great to see your young corners staying active against the run, ideally you like to see Layne wrap Elliot’s legs up in his attempt, allowing no room for Zeke to squirm free.
On a fourth quarter kickoff, Layne helped squander a beautifully placed pooch kick by Chris Boswell, failing to adhere to lane discipline, and rather inexplicably drifting inside, allowing himself to be blocked, and creating a massive lane between him and James Pierre. Had Layne broken down properly, he appeared to have been in position to tackle the returner inside of the 15, which would have pinned the Cowboys deep and flipped field position in the Steelers favor. Nevertheless, the play ultimately resulted in a 64 yard return, which placed Dallas deep in Pittsburgh territory, and in prime position to put the game away with a score had Minkah not grabbed a clutch interception.
Justin Layne had a generally tough game in the specials teams department, with his miscues playing a large part in both Dallas explosive returns. Nonetheless, he appeared far more comfortable in his defensive snaps than he did late in the Ravens game, where his confusion led to multiple conversions.
James Pierre- B
James Pierre saw a slight severance of his special teams snaps against the Cowboys, receiving just nine special teams snaps, yet still recording a tackle on a day where the Steelers special teams units were thoroughly outclassed. On the Steelers first punt, Pierre displayed ideal physicality and effort, effectively beating the press through advanced hand fighting, getting to the jammer’s blind spot, and finishing with speed to force an early fair catch.
Later, midway through the third quarter, Pierre fought hard to separate from a double team, before shooting low to stop CeeDee Lamb after a short six yard return. The physicality and effort which Pierre displays on a weekly basis is easy to appreciate, and likely will cement his position in the league as a special teamer for years to come.
On the game’s final punt, Pierre was caught off guard at the snap, still fixing his mouthguard, and thus allowing C.J. Goodwin to blow past him and tattoo Ray Ray McCloud. While Pierre’s consistent effort is commendable, mental mistakes are unacceptable, particularly in the fourth quarter of a one score game.
While Pierre’s late game gaffe cost the Steelers crucial field position in a one possession game, his maniacal effort throughout the game helped him leave his imprint on the outcome. Thus, with a guy like Pierre, even on his worst days, his unmatched motor will put him in position to produce impact plays numerous times every game.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 22% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 18%, totaling 40% of their total defensive snaps spent in sub-packages, which once again narrowly edged out last week’s 42% figure to establish a new season low. While this number is absurdly low, much of this can be attributed to Mike Hilton’s continued absence, as well as a commitment to stopping a dangerous Dallas run game led by Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. Moreover, I would argue that the teams choice to stay in base on many possession downs often dictated their choices, forcing Butler and company to choose between playing zone or tasking a linebacker with a man coverage assignment on a receiver.
Overall, the secondary performed well, often tasked with tackling the catch as Garrett Gilbert picked apart underneath zones on stick routes to his tight ends and receivers. Nonetheless, it was frustrating to watch Butler continue to deploy Cover 3 zones on third down, steering away from the team’s strength, their staple Cover 1 looks. Deploying zone coverage against mobile quarterbacks the likes of Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson seems rational, but forcing a newcomer like Garrett Gilbert to beat man coverage with tight window throws certainly seems like a favorable proposition.
Bottom line, for the second week in a row, the secondary forced multiple turnovers and secured critical stops through the air with the game on the line, making it tough to fault them too much, despite Gilbert’s relative success. Moving forward, I would love to see this team get back to their staple Cover 1 man coverage concepts in key situations, trusting their talented secondary to do their job and allowing the pass rush to get home. Moving into Bengals week with a widely talented rookie in quarterback Joe Burrow playing behind the league’s worst offensive line, sitting back in zones could prove to be a recipe for disaster, and likely the only way this Bengals offense gains substantial traction.