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DB Report Card: Steelers Vs Jaguars

In their Week 11 matchup against the reeling Jacksonville Jaguars, who entered the game at a putrid 1-8, the Steelers defense took control early, allowing the offense to eventually get going en route to a comfortable 27-3 road victory, cue the Bankroll.  The Steelers continued to deploy a mix of Cover 1 man heavy looks, with sprinkles of trap zone coverages behind their elite pass rush, holding the Jaguars to 4-13 on possession downs one week after blanking Cincinnati on third down.  The secondary helped frustrate the inexperienced Jake Luton all afternoon, holding him to a statline of 16/37, 151 yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions, and a comically low 15.5 passer rating.

Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds recorded a pair of interceptions each, with Minkah kicking off the turnover party just before half with a clutch red zone interception.  Minkah would return the pick for 37 yards, setting up a seven play touchdown drive, capped off by a one yard touchdown run courtesy of Benny Snell, putting the Steelers up 17-3 entering halftime.  It was certainly encouraging to see Edmunds finally rewarded with some turnovers, as he has quietly improved drastically this season, and has been just inches away from recording picks on numerous occasions thus far.

Ultimately, the Steelers defensive backs built on their Week 10 performance, continuing to limit explosive plays in the passing game, tackling the catch effectively, and contesting receivers tightly on possession downs.  Minkah in particular provided a physical presence from his post safety spot, tackling James Robinson effectively to prevent potential explosive runs in the second level.  Overwhelmingly, the Steelers deployment of man heavy schemes of the past two weeks has played to the teams strengths and eliminated the coverage busts which had plagued the team earlier in the season.

Moving forward into a Thanksgiving night rematch with the division rival Baltimore Ravens, who enter the week at 6-4 following a two game skid, the Steelers will likely be forced to move back toward heavy deployment of zone schemes to keep eyes on 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson.  Nonetheless, the return of Mike Hilton should allow the Steelers to match the Ravens in 11-personnel while simultaneously maintaining top level run defense.  Moreover, while the Steelers secondary helped frustrate Lamar Jackson into a four turnover outing in week 8, they allowed a slew of explosive plays in the passing game courtesy of Willie Snead IV, an area which they should certainly work to clean up before the Thursday night rematch.

Joe Haden- B+ 

In Week 11, Joe Haden played effectively in 37 total snaps, ultimately returning to the game briefly later on after missing time with an injury, and finishing the game with three solo tackles.  On the Jaguars first offensive snap, Joe Haden was tasked with a man coverage assignment on Keelan Cole Sr. while operating out of a Cover 1 blitz scheme.  At the snap, Haden aligned with outside leverage before using a shuffle technique to gain depth, ultimately failing to hold his outside leverage at the top of the route as Cole broke toward the sideline, forcing Haden to utilize a speed turn and tackle the catch.  While I would ideally like to see Haden hold his outside leverage here, I have no problem with playing conservative and tackling the catch early in a game, where teams are most likely to take a downfield shot.

Later, midway through the first quarter, Haden utilized an impressive speed turn to blanket D.J. Chark Jr. downfield on a post route while operating out of a Cover 1 nickel blitz.  Although Luton’s pass ultimately fell woefully off target due to heavy pressure, Haden was in receivers hip pocket downfield and was in position to contest the catch point on the deep ball.

Midway through the third quarter, Joe Haden came up from his boundary cornerback slot to make a physical stick on James Robinson, suffering an injury on the play, although he would later return to the game briefly.  At the snap, Haden, aligned as an overhang defender to the nub tight end set diagnosed run immediately, inserting into the box, breaking down, and aiming low to bring down Robinson after a short gain of one yard.

Overall, Haden put forth a solid effort before going down against the Jaguars, using his veteran instincts to provide sticky man coverage, particularly in the Steelers Cover 1 schemes, where Haden used leverage to his advantage all afternoon.  Moreover, Haden continued to display his chops as a tackler, tackling the catch efficiently while simultaneously chipping in to help slow down the talented James Robinson.  While it appears Haden should be ready for the Ravens game, he missed practice on the Tuesday injury report with what is being called a knee injury, leaving me with no option but to cross my fingers.

Steven Nelson- A-

Against the Jaguars, Steven Nelson continued to build on his productive season, logging 53 snaps while recording an impressive tackle for a loss and nearly corralling his third pick of the season in a game where he was rarely targeted.  Early in the second quarter, with the Jaguars attempting to convert a third and long, Steven Nelson was deployed in man coverage on Chris Conley while operating out of a Cover 1 blitz.  Nelson aligned at depth before backpedaling and eventually opening his hips, allowing Conley to beat him inside past the markers, where he would drop a pass that hit him square in the hands and nearly fell into the waiting of Nelson.  As Nelson had help to the deep middle with Minkah in the post, he could have ideally played with outside leverage and slowed the tempo in his backpedal to protect the sticks.

On the ensuing possession, Nelson slipped a block to blow up a D.J. Chark Jr. screen pass in the backfield for a loss of four yards, displaying great discipline and physicality on the rep.  At the snap, Nelson, in press alignment, deployed a mirror press before flying out of his break, slipping under Keelan Cole Sr.’s block, and combining with Cam Heyward to record an impressive tackle for a loss, placing the Jaguars behind the chains.

 

Late in the third quarter, Steven Nelson blanketed D.J. Chark on a shallow crossing route, breaking efficiently and staying glued to the receivers hip pocket to avoid being picked.  Although Luton’s pass sailed harmlessly to the turf after a crushing hit from Bud Dupree, Nelson was in position to make a play on the football, and potentially could have undercut the route for a pick-six.

Nelson produced an extremely impressive effort in week 11, providing sticky man coverage on the speedy D.J. Chark Jr. throughout the afternoon, while continuing to display the physicality that had him on Pittsburgh’s radar coming out of Oregon State.  While Joe Haden has seen the lionshare of the targets in recent weeks, Steven Nelson has quietly been putting together an extremely solid ladder half of the season, consistently imprisoning receivers with physical press man coverage.

Minkah Fitzpatrick- A

Against Jacksonville, Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to provide a physical presence in the middle of the field in his 54 snaps, ultimately finishing the game with 5 tackles and two picks, including a red zone interception which he returned for 37 yards.  On the game’s opening drive, Minkah came from his safety slot to bring down James Robinson, who had scampered into the second level, with a physical and fundamentally sound tackle.  Initially aligned in a two high shell pre snap, Minkah diagnosed run quickly, gaining ground and throwing a shoulder to take out Robinson’s legs from underneath him, ultimately holding the back to a gain of 12 yards.

Midway through the second quarter, operating out of his post safety slot, Minkah once again cleaned up a James Robinson second level run with an impressive, fundamentally sound tackle.  On the rep, Minkah came from his post safety slot, taking a perfect angle, forcing Robinson to the sideline, tracking the near hip, and fighting through a stiff arm to corral the talented back after a gain of 18 yards.  Merely three plays later, Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to provide a physical presence from his post safety slot, laying out Chris Conley after a 13 yard gain on a bubble screen.  At the snap, Minkah diagnosed the screen, took a great angle, and made a perfect form tackle, wrapping up and pulling Conley’s legs out from under him to dump him with physicality.

Two plays later, with the Jaguars deep in the Steelers red zone, Minkah read Jake Luton’s eyes from his post safety slot, breaking on Tyler Eifert before adjusting to intercept a fluttering pass that had been tipped at the line by Tyson Alualu.  Minkah wound up returning the pick down the sideline for 37 yards, placing the Steelers in ideal field position to mount a scoring drive and take a 17-3 lead entering halftime.

 

Minkah Fitzpatrick simply possesses a playmakers instinct that few possess at the safety position, consistently reading quarterbacks and putting himself in position to capitalize on opposing offense’s mistakes.  Late in the fourth quarter, Minkah grabbed his second interception of the game while operating in a deep 1/2 assignment out of a Cover 2 man scheme, sliding to the turf to pick off an errant pass intended for Ben Ellefson.

After a relatively quiet start to the season, Minkah has exploded in recent weeks, reaching the levels of playmaking that we became so accustomed to in 2019.  A Week 11 matchup against Jacksonville proved no different, and while the two interceptions will jump off the stat sheet, Minkah’s tackling over the past three weeks has arguably been the most impressive facet of his game.  Minkah’s ability to consistently capitalize on miscues while providing a physical presence from his post safety slot is what allows the Steelers to wreak havoc with their blitz heavy, Cover 1 centric scheme.

Terrell Edmunds- A

In Week 11, Terrell Edmunds played extensively, logging 49 total snaps while finishing with four tackles and a pair of interceptions, just the second and third of his three year career.  Just before half, while operating out of a deep ½ assignment in a Cover 2 zone scheme, Edmunds capitalized on a overthrow by Jake Luton to record his first pick of the season, and closing out the first half in the process.  At the snap, Edmunds gained depth with a patient backpedal before opening to get over the top of Tyler Eifert up the seam, placing himself in ideal position to capitalize on Luton’s overthrow.

Early in the third quarter, in a third and long situation, Edmunds was tasked with a man coverage assignment on Tyler Eifert while operating out of a Cover 1 blitz scheme to a quads bunch set.  At the snap, Edmunds made an in call, passing Keelan Cole Sr. to Mike Hilton and simultaneously picking up Tyler Eifert, staying in phase on an out route at the sticks, and playing through the pocket, but failing to jar the ball loose.  Just before the end of the third quarter, Edmunds came from his strong safety spot to fill off the edge and bring down James Robinson after eight yards on the cutback run.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Jaguars facing yet another 3rd and long, Terrell Edmunds was deployed in a deep hook/curl zone, sitting at the sticks in an inverted Cover 3 scheme.  Edmunds displayed great situational awareness, keeping his feet planted at the sticks and reading Luton’s eyes before undercutting a pass , going airborne for the tip, and catching his own tip upon landing for an acrobatic interception.  Edmunds has been inches away from numerous interceptions thus far in his 2020 campaign, and although his improvement as a safety has been well documented, it was encouraging to finally see him make a pair of splash plays in the passing games.

It had been a long time coming, but Terrell Edmunds finally forced his first turnover of the season, grabbing a pair of interceptions, the second of which displayed his vast improvement as a playmaker. Edmunds improvements in coverage and tackling this season has allowed the Steelers to move their safeties around more often, with Minkah  occasionally playing near the line of scrimmage, thus unlocking new possibilities for the defense as a unit.  Moreover, Edmunds has functioned effectively both as a physical box safety and in man coverage assignments against slots and tight ends.

Mike Hilton- B

After missing three games with injury, Mike Hilton logged 21 snaps in his return, ultimately recording a tackle as the team attempted to bring him back slowly in a game where the Steelers won comfortably.

While Hilton ultimately failed to make a large impact on the game, it was largely due to a limited snap count with the Steelers bringing him along slowly.  Expect Hilton to play extensively against Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, where his tackling and blitzing could prove crucial in halting a Ravens ground game that gashed the Steelers for 265 yards.

Cameron Sutton- B+

In Week 11, Cam Sutton continued to produce in sub-packages, logging 32 defensive snaps while recording three tackles and a pass breakup, continuing to serve a variety of roles.

Late in the fourth quarter, deployed in a flat zone assignment to the quarters side of a Cover 6 zone scheme, Cam Sutton baited Jake Luton into an errant throw, nearly grabbing his second pick of the season, but recording a pass breakup nonetheless.  At the snap, Sutton gained depth, allowing routes to distribute in front of him and reading Luton’s eyes, before smoothly breaking to the flat and undercutting a pass intended for tight end Ben Ellefson.

While Sutton had a relatively quiet outing in the tackling department, he was rarely targeted when deployed in man coverage, consistently blanketing the Jaguars receivers out of the slot.  Moreover, Sutton nearly corralled his first pick six of the season while playing out of an underneath zone assignment, where he is consistently able to use his instincts to bait quarterbacks into dangerous passes.  Sutton could prove to be an x factor in slowing down Willie Snead IV, who consistently exploited holes in the Steelers zone schemes in week 8, grabbing 5 receptions for 106 yards, most of which came after the catch.

Jordan Dangerfield- B+

Against Jacksonville, Jordan Dangerfield led the team in special teams snaps, logging 18 while failing to appear on the stat sheet on a day where special teams were mostly quiet, which is rarely a negative.

While Dangerfield failed to appear on the stat sheet or stand out on tape, it is largely due to a quiet day for the special teams units, where no kickoffs were returned and most punts were not fielded for returns.  Nonetheless, the punt protection unit functioned flawlessly, which is always a positive reflection on Dangerfield’s work as the unit’s personal protector, and the captain of the specials teams unit as a whole.  With a Thanksgiving night rivalry game approaching, I would not be surprised to Dangerfield make a game changing splash play on the kickoff unit.

Sean Davis- A-

Against the Jaguars, Sean Davis logged 5 defensive snaps and seven special teams snaps, ultimately recording a tackle which came early in his first half in sub-package work.

Midway through the first quarter, with the Steelers operating out of their 3-4 over front, Sean Davis was subbed in for Steven Nelson as the boundary cornerback to a nub tight end set as the Jaguars attempted a third and one.  At the snap, Davis instantly diagnosed run, triggered into the box and put a physical hit on James Robinson, who showed impressive body control falling for a two yard gain and gaining a hard earned third down conversion.

On the Steelers first punt, Davis executed an impressive cut block from his wing spot, bluffing a traditional block before dropping to decleat the edge rusher, and keeping the pressure away from Jordan Berry, who executed a beautiful coffin corner punt to pin Jacksonville inside the 10.

Overall, Davis produced his best effort of the season on special teams, showing top notch effort in both protection and coverage on the punt unit, a trait that he has lacked at times this season.  Moreover, Davis garnered a meaningful defensive snap for just the second time all season, answering the call to make a physical stop on James Robinson.

Justin Layne- B

In Week 11, Justin Layne had his busiest day of the season, recording 18 defensive snaps while filling in for an injured Joe Haden while simultaneously logging 17 special teams snaps on a day where he failed to appear on the box score.

Early in the fourth quarter, while filling in for the injured Joe Haden, Justin Layne produced an impressive rep while operating out of Cover 3 in a 2nd and long situation.  Layne disguised his alignment before bailing into his deep ⅓ at the snap, utilizing an impressive speed turn to stay in phase with a comeback route, and contesting Chris Conley at the catch point as the ball sailed harmlessly out of bounds.

Overall, while he failed to produce splash on special teams, Layne was effective from his gunner slot throughout the afternoon, frequently beating his man downfield and rendering the Jaguars return game largely ineffective.  Moreover, while Layne can appear jittery at times on defense, his length allows him to disrupt receivers releases with frequency, allowing him to excel in Cover 2 zone schemes.

James Pierre- B

 Against Jacksonville, James Pierre continued to garner extensive special teams work, ultimately logging 16 snaps across various units, and impressing in his late game defensive snaps, recording a pair of tackles and an impressive tackle for a loss in the 27-3 blowout victory.

On the Jaguars first punt of the game, Pierre and Sutton allowed the gunner, Chris Claybrooks, to split their double team off the line, allowing him to beat them with speed and blast Ray-Ray McCloud at the five yard line.  Pierre must stay far more patient at the snap moving forward, particularly as the outside man in a double team, where you must funnel the gunner back inside to the second jammer.

On the Jaguars final offensive possession, Pierre impressed in limited action, displaying explosiveness and physicality to record a tackle for a loss on a screen.  Operating out of a flat zone assignment in a Cover 2 zone scheme, Pierre diagnosed screen immediately, beating the block with speed and shooting low to bring the receiver down with physicality.

While Pierre’s work as a jammer could certainly stand to improve in the coming weeks, he was extremely effective as a gunner throughout the game, beating his man off the line with ease and constantly disrupting the Jaguars returners along with Justin Layne.  Moreover, Pierre made the most of his snaps in mop up duty, displaying his quickness, football IQ, and physicality to blow up a screen on the game’s final possession.

Overall: B+

The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 47% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 17%, totaling 64% of their defensive snaps spent in sub packages.  While this number is down significantly from the 85% figure posted in week 10, much of this can be attributed to a game plan focused on stopping James Robinson.  The Steelers secondary ultimately helped hold the Jaguars to 4-13 on possession downs, producing a 4-26 figure over the past two weeks, allowing just a 15% conversion rate, albeit against a pair of sub par opponents.

While the Steelers continued to deploy their Cover 1 scheme with frequency, they mixed in a variety of zones to confuse the inexperienced Jake Luton, disguising their safeties before rolling into Cover 2, Cover 6, and Inverted Cover 3 looks with success, finishing the day with four picks as a unit.  Particularly the Inverted Cover 3 looks, which give a pre snap look of a two high shell, before inserting the safeties into underneath zones, gave Luton fits throughout the afternoon.

Ultimately, the Steelers secondary did more than enough to win, tackling the catch effectively and securing timely turnovers to keep the Jaguars out of the end zone in a 27-3 blowout victory.  Moving into a rematch with the division rival Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers should look to continue deploying a mix of confusing looks in zone coverage, keeping their eyes on the dangerous Lamar Jackson while simultaneously confusing him into timely miscues.  Nonetheless, after a pair of comfortable victories, I expect Thanksgiving night’s game to bring us back into high blood pressure territory, with a potential victory eliminating the Ravens from AFC North title contention.

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