In their Week eight matchup against the division rival Baltimore Ravens, who entered the game rolling at 5-1, the Steelers were ripped apart by the Ravens rushing attack, but were able to force Lamar Jackson into four turnovers, while making key stops late en route to a 28-24 win. The secondary continued to struggle with lapses in communication, but helped contain Lamar Jackson in his worst effort of the season, forcing Jackson into four turnovers, which helped swing the game in the Steelers favor, a game where they were outgained 2:1 in yardage.
The Steelers secondary helped hold Lamar Jackson to 192 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and two fumbles lost, while confusing Lamar with a mixed variety of coverage and pressure looks. Joe Haden and Steven Nelson helped hold Hollywood Brown to three total yards, while the safeties did a magnificent job in holding Mark Andrews to thirty two total yards, holding the latter out of the end zone. Haden in particular was all over the field Sunday, contesting receivers at the catch point with frequency while offering quality run defense, ultimately finishing the game with seven tackles.
Minkah Fitzpatrick provided a physical presence over the middle in all phases of the game, helping contain Lamar Jackson in the run game, while most notably coming down late to jar the ball loose on a late red zone stop. Just one possession later, Minkah sealed the game on a beautiful end zone pass breakup as time expired, high pointing the football and beating Willie Snead IV to the catch point, while offering a fitting end to another rivalry classic.
Overall, while it’s tough to be too disappointed with a secondary that helped frustrate the reigning NFL MVP to his worst game of the season in a victory, the Steelers secondary needs to clean up the weekly communication errors. Coverage mishaps helped allow the Ravens to complete a frustrating 53% of their 15 third down attempts, two of which came in third and long situations on an eight play, 53 yard drive, which gave the Ravens a 24-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Nonetheless, the Steelers defensive backs helped the defense clamp down with the game on the line and move to 7-0, tying the franchise record for consecutive wins to begin a season. Moving into an inviting three game stretch against the Cowboys, Bengals, and Jaguars, the Steelers secondary has a great opportunity to work out their coverage communication issues while continuing to produce splash plays ahead of their looming rematch with the Ravens.
Joe Haden- A-
Joe Haden put together another busy day of work against the Ravens, playing 81 snaps while finishing the afternoon with seven tackles, and helping contain the dangerous Marquise Brown with stingy coverage. Midway through the first, Haden made his first run stop of the day, inserting off the edge to stuff a Gus Edwards cutback for three yards, and forcing the Ravens into a third down situation. Haden, aligned with outside leverage to a nub tight end set before inserting into the box at the snap, tracking Edwards near hip, and shooting low for a physical stop on the big back. Haden has been one of the premier run defenders at the cornerback position in the NFL since joining Pittsburgh, routinely providing stout run defense and unmatched physicality.
Early in the second quarter, Haden displayed great effort and discipline, tracking down Gus Edwards after a 25 yard scamper on a power run which had squirted free. Haden inserted off the edge at the snap to fill his contain responsibilities, before flipping his hips, taking a great angle, and tracking Edwards back hip, wrapping up the back to ensure a stop near midfield. Later in the same drive, Haden once again made an impressive tackle while operating out of his deep ⅓ Cover 3 assignment. Haden carried Marquise Brown on a 9 route down the sideline, before quickly diagnosing a sprint-out flood concept, rolling down, and stopping Mark Andrews short of the end zone.
With the Ravens driving just before half, Joe Haden nearly secured his second interception of the season, blanketing a Miles Boykin curl route in a man coverage assignment, while operating in the Steelers Cover 1 blitz call. Haden aligned in press coverage pre snap, before backing off and deploying heavy outside leverage to beat Miles Boykin out of his break, and make an aggressive play to undercut the throw. While Haden ultimately trapped the ball on the turf, leading to a correct ruling of an incomplete pass, it has been encouraging to see him routinely make active plays on the football over the recent stretch of games, a mark of impactful cornerback play.
Just before the end of the third quarter, Haden once again made his impact felt in the run game, inserting off the edge to stuff Gus Edwards after a short three yard gain. Haden once again aligned with depth as an overhang defender to the nub tight end set, before inserting into the box at the snap, getting small to dip under a Orlando Brown Jr. kick out block, and making a diving tackle to take out Edwards legs.
Overall, Joe Haden put together one of his best games of the season, strapping the Ravens receivers with tight coverage and contesting the catch point all game, while simultaneously providing strong defense off the edge in the run game. Haden’s play has improved vastly over the past three weeks, and he should be presented with continued opportunities to create splash plays in the coming weeks.
Steven Nelson- B+
Steven Nelson played 74 snaps in a productive outing during the Steelers week eight matchup, tallying four tackles on a day where the Ravens largely strayed away from his matchups in coverage. Late in the first quarter, operating in a “scf “ (seam-curl-flat) zone coverage assignment out of Cover 3, Steven Nelson made a nice tackle to bring down Mark Andrews well short of the sticks on third and long, forcing a punt. Nelson showed great instincts, gaining depth and sinking under Hollywood Brown’s deep comeback route at the sticks, before rallying with speed to bring down Mark Andrews on a short spot route, allowing no room for yards after the catch.
Nelson’s best defensive reps this season have come in his recent work from the slot, warranting the question as to whether the team can continue to carve him out snaps in this role upon Hilton’s return. Just before half, operating out of a Cover 1 blitz, Steven Nelson aligned with outside leverage, utilizing a “Banjo” call to sort the tight bunched receivers, and ultimately picking up Willie Snead IV on a stop route at the sticks. Nelson was forced to align in off coverage due to the cut split, leaving him vulnerable to short routes, nonetheless, Nelson came out of his break efficiently and brought down Snead IV, leaving him no opportunity to gain yards after the catch.
One play later, on a subtle play, the Ravens motioned into empty with the Steelers in Cover 1, attempting to isolate the speedy Devin Duvernay on Vince Williams in man coverage. Nelson immediately noticed the mismatch, and communicated a switch with Vince at the snap, allowing Nelson to comfortably blanket Duvernay on a dig, and consequently forcing Jackson into a harmless throwaway.
Nelson rebounded well from a tough week seven matchup, imprisoning Marquise Brown with physical press coverage looks throughout the game, while continuing to stick out on film in his slot work. Nelson is the Steelers best press man coverage cornerback, and his increased usage out of the slot has allowed him to see more targets, where he can impact the game with his quickness and physicality on the inside.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- A-
Minkah Fitzpatrick put together an impressive bounce back performance after a tough week seven outing, logging 82 snaps while recording seven tackles on the day, and making key plays down the stretch, including a game sealing pass breakup as time expired. Minkah was frequently deployed near the line of scrimmage throughout the game, blitzing on multiple occasions, while playing disguised underneath zone assignments on other snaps.
On the Ravens second drive, the Steelers deployed Cover 3 on 3rd and long, tasking Minkah with a deep ⅓ assignment as the post safety. Minkah initially closed down a throwing window to Mark Andrews over the middle, before screaming down to cut off Lamar Jackson’s running lane, forcing a cutback and taking Jackson out of bounds. Unfortunately, the Ravens were granted the first down on an unnecessary roughness as Cam Heyward handed Lamar a parting shot on his way out of bounds, further depicting the issue with granting mobile quarterbacks protection as runners outside of the pocket. Midway through the second quarter, in a goal line situation, Minkah came from his post safety slot to lay a punishing hit on Lamar Jackson, keeping him out of the end zone, while continuing to establish a physical presence over the middle. Minkah never stopped his feet, running straight through Jackson, and creating significant knockback to stonewall the quarterback.
Later, with the Steelers operating out of Cover 6 on 2nd and 22, Minkah was late rolling down to pick up Willie Snead IV, attacking with improper leverage, and allowing Snead IV to gain significant yards after the catch. Ultimately Snead IV would gain 24 yards, setting the Ravens up inside the 10 yard line, where they would score just a few plays later, punishing the Steelers defense for two inexcusable coverage lapses leading to explosive plays. On the first of two Ravens late fourth quarter drives, Minkah remained aggressive in the run game, chipping in on four tackles, none bigger than the fourth down stop in which he came in late to lay a hit on Jackson and knock the ball loose. Minkah immediately diagnosed the quarterback draw, came screaming down from his post safety slot, and threw all his weight at Lamar Jackson, getting two hands on the ball and forcing yet another fumble, this one recovered by Robert Spillane. Minkah’s instincts allow him to take over the game in key situations, and his performance in the fourth quarter should have reminded everyone why the Steelers traded for the All-Pro.
Finally, with five seconds remaining, and the Ravens with time to take one shot at the end zone, the Steelers deployed Cover 4 quarters, tasking all of their defenders to sink and protect the end zone. Minkah played the throw perfectly, staying patient and sitting on the hash marks, not fooled by Jackson’s eye manipulation, instead beating Willie Snead IV to the spot and high pointing the football for an acrobatic pass breakup, sealing the win. Minkah cut off the throw and attacked the football at its apex before Snead IV could fully locate it, and likely would have had an interception if not for the full speed collision. Overall, it was an All-Pro caliber play to end an All-Pro caliber fourth quarter for Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was the Steelers most impactful secondary member in the momentous divisional victory.
Minkah Fitzpatrick was all over the field in his most impactful performance thus far of his 2020 campaign, playing a large part in the Steelers containment of Lamar Jackson, while simultaneously making splash plays both in coverage and in the run game. Moreover, with the game on the line on consecutive possessions, Minkah made consecutive game winning plays in the most important game of the season, reaffirming his All-Pro status for those who had forgotten.
Terrell Edmunds- C+
Terrell Edmunds played 61 snaps, while struggling at times to hold the point of attack in his run fits, but ultimately recording two tackles in the Steelers victory. After a quiet first half, just after the two minute warning, Edmunds inserted into the C-gap on a run blitz at the snap, forcing Jackson to keep the ball on the read option. Edmunds was then able to display an impressive change of direction and track Jackson down heading to the sideline after a short gain of four yards.
Later in the drive, with the Ravens facing third and six, Edmunds was decleated by a pulling Orlando Brown Jr., allowing Lamar Jackson to gain first down yardage on the quarterback counter. While Brown Jr. presents a tough assignment for the safety, ideally you would like to see Edmunds either defeat the block with speed and agility, or attack the block head up and cut the lead blocker.
At the onset of the fourth quarter, with the Steelers operating out of Cover 4 quarters, having forced the Ravens into a midfield 3rd and 14 attempt, Edmunds was inexplicably caught with his eyes in the backfield on a 39 yard Devin Duvernay reception. The reception set the Ravens up inside the red zone on what would culminate in a scoring drive to put them ahead, further illustrating the dangers of the Steelers frequent coverage mishaps downfield.
Terrell Edmunds had a tough time staying clean against an elite Ravens running attack, struggling to get off blocks throughout the game, and simultaneously failing to make plays on the football in coverage. While Edmunds certainly deserves credit for helping contain Mark Andrews, his Cover 4 breakdown, which led to a third and long conversion, is completely unacceptable from a veteran player, and could have been the defining play had they ultimately lost.
Cameron Sutton- A-
Cameron Sutton continued to produce in the Steelers sub-packages, playing 44 defensive snaps and providing sticky man coverage while filling various roles in the Steelers defensive schemes. On the Ravens second drive, with the Ravens threatening deep in the red zone, Cam Sutton made an impressive solo stop on a Lamar Jackson quarterback counter. Although pre-snap motion left the Steelers defense out leveraged to the counter play, Sutton closed space immediately from safety depth, attacking Jackson with outside leverage and putting a physical stick on the quarterback after a short three yard gain.
Midway through the third quarter, tasked with a flat zone assignment in Cover 3, Cam Sutton nearly produced a game changing play, tracking down Mark Andrews from behind and deploying a successful “peanut punch”, knocking the ball loose to the turf. Although the ball wound up harmlessly squirting out of bounds, it is always encouraging to see your defensive backs attacking the football and attempting to create turnovers.
Cam Sutton played extensively for the second consecutive week due to Mike Hilton’s absence, aligning at dimebacker, while also playing some deep safety to allow Minkah and Edmunds to approach the line and blitz on occasion. Sutton once again proved more than adequate in coverage, continued to show his improvement as a tackler, and nearly caused a game changing turnover, continuing to prove his status as a consistent playmaker in this defense.
Sean Davis- C+
Sean Davis continued to gain extensive work on special teams, garnering 15 snaps across various units, yet failing to tangibly impact the game on a noticeable level. On the Steelers first punt of the day, which was sent sailing out of bounds by Jordan Berry, Sean Davis once again deployed a cut block from his wing spot, missing inside and allowing a man to squirt free. Luckily, the Ravens had a return on rather than a block, preventing the free rusher from continuing towards Jordan Berry, instead preoccupied with blocking Davis downfield. The next rep, Davis showed vast improvements in his technique, stepping up to square the Ravens edge rusher with physicality, and keeping the rusher far away from Jordan Berry.
On the Steelers final punt, with the Ravens sending the kitchen sink, Sean Davis once again deployed a cut block from his wing slot, this time making solid contact and sending the edge rusher to the turf. Nonetheless, had Davis squared the edge rusher up, he may have noticed a looper who came inside of his cut block, and nearly blocked the punt in the process. In punt protection, rushers coming from the inside are always thought of as more immediate threats, and thus Davis’ propensity to deploy cut blocks can limit his vision in certain aspects of the block scheme.
Sean Davis certainly showed better effort in week eight than he had in previous weeks, even getting in on a tackle with Marcus Allen on the kickoff team, but continues to worry me at his wing spot on the punt unit. His propensity to deploy cut blocks off the edge has become a tendency on tape, and I will continue to go out on the record and say that I will be unsurprised if a blocked punt eventually comes from pressure off his left side.
Justin Layne- B
Justin Layne saw 11 defensive snaps for the second consecutive week against the Ravens, performing adequately in coverage, and contributing extensively on special teams in 14 snaps, tallying two tackles. On an early second quarter punt, Layne produced a great rep, getting downfield to force a fair catch from his gunner spot, and pinning the Ravens inside their own 20 yard line. Layne utilized a speed release to beat the jammer off the line, before working the jammer’s blind spots to gain separation, eventually stacking the blocker and settling down in James Proche’s air space to force an immediate fair catch. Layne continued to produce out of his gunner slot just before halftime, this time utilizing a single stick release to beat the jammer before stacking him downfield, and forcing yet another James Proche fair catch.
Just before half, with the Steelers once again operating out of Cover 1, Layne was caught flat footed, allowing himself to be picked by Devin Duvernay, and leaving Snead IV with space to take a short out route for a first down with a few yards after the catch. Layne needs to do a better job of aligning with more depth between him and Steven Nelson, allowing him to keep the play in front of him, react, and avoid getting tangled up on third and long moving forward. On the Ravens first punt of the second half, Layne failed to get hands on the gunner, opening his hips at the snap and allowing the gunner a free release, ultimately allowing himself to get stacked and forcing Ray Ray McCloud to take a fair catch.
On the game’s final drive, the Steelers deployed Cover 6 to match the Ravens empty set, ultimately allowing Willie Snead IV, who victimized the unit all day, to gain 32 yards and a first down over the middle. Although I believe Marcus Allen is actually responsible for picking up Snead IV, as opposed to carrying Mark Andrews to the sideline, and into Justin Layne’s flat zone, Layne still appeared to make a rookie mistake by hesitating. With the game on the line, there is no room for hesitation, and thus, although Layne’s confusion is understandable, I would ideally like to see him make a reactionary decision with the game on the line and carry Snead IV over the middle, rather than freezing in a rookie like fashion.
On the game’s final play, Layne looked far more comfortable, melting to Willie Snead’s inside vertical route as the ball was released, and helping Minkah Fitzpatrick on a game sealing pass breakup. While Layne had his fair share of mistakes defensively in this game, it was encouraging to see him redeem himself at the end, proving his worth in what was unquestionably the most impactful moment of his career thus far.
Justin Layne continued to gain crucial experience on defense for the second consecutive week, ultimately making some mistakes, but performing admirably on the game’s final play. Moving forward, Layne will likely see less defensive snaps upon Hilton’s return, and needs to work on eye discipline in the meantime, particularly in man coverage assignments, before he can become a starting caliber player. On special teams, Layne had a very productive outing, getting downfield well from his gunner spot to help contain James Proche on numerous occasions.
James Pierre- B-
James Pierre continued to garner extensive work on special teams in week eight, failing to make an appearance on the box score, but continuing to provide great effort and production on 13 snaps across various units.
Pierre struggled to get downfield from his gunner slot throughout the first half, often tasked with a double team from the return unit, a sign that teams are beginning to notice his impact on film. Later, on the first punt of the second half, Pierre used a speed release to beat the jammer off the line, stacking him and putting himself in position to force a fair catch.
On the Steelers first kickoff of the second half, Pierre, operating as the contain man, helped close down the edge by cutting the kickout blocker, which allowed Marcus Allen time to fill the lane and cut down Devin Duvernay at the 27 yard line.
Playing solely on special teams, Pierre generally had a quiet game, although he was often assigned to double teams by the Ravens punt return unit, establishing that opposing teams are starting to take notice of his work on special teams. Interestingly enough, on the game’s final punt, Chase Claypool was subbed in for Pierre, proceeding to beat his man downfield with ease to force a crucial fair catch.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 30% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 12%, totaling 42% percent of their total snaps spent in sub-packages, which narrowly beat out week seven’s 44% figure to establish a new season low. Once again, while this figure is extremely low, a combination of facing the Ravens league best rushing attack led by Lamar Jackson, while simultaneously dealing with the absence of Mike Hilton, can largely be attributed to the lack of sub-package usage. The secondary performed very well, making a concerted group effort to contribute heavily in the run game on a day where they were rarely tested through the air.
The Steelers continued to lean on their staple Cover 1 blitzes, yet often opted to deploy a mix of Cover 3, Cover 6, Cover 2, and Cover 4 quarters zones in key situations as part of a concerted effort to attempt to keep their eyes on Lamar Jackson. While coverage miscues from Terrell Edmunds and Justin Layne, among others, led to explosive plays, the secondary contested the catch point effectively throughout the game, forcing Jackson to hold onto the ball, and allowing the pass rush to wreak havoc early and often. Moreover, the secondary’s ability to shut down the Ravens top receiving weapons in Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown, while tackling well to keep any explosive plays out of the end zone, rendered the Ravens pass game somewhat ineffective.
Overall, I would contend that the secondary played their best game of the season, forcing multiple turnovers throughout the game, and making the game winning stop through the air to establish firm control over the AFC North. Moving into a matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, who have yet to name their starting quarterback for Sunday afternoon, the Steelers secondary has a great opportunity to produce another multiple turnover game. Moreover, entering a three game stretch against teams that currently sit outside of the playoff picture, this Steelers secondary must work out the lingering issues in their coverage communication, while continuing to stack wins in their quest for the ever important first round bye.