In their Week 15 matchup against the 2-10-1 Cincinnati Bengals, with the potential to clinch the AFC North for the first time since the 2017 season, the Steelers offense coughed up three first half turnovers, gifting the Bengals 17 points in one of the most demoralizing losses of the Tomlin era. In a game where Ryan Finley finished 7-13 passing for 89 yards and a touchdown, the Steelers lacked the offensive firepower to dig themselves out of a 17 point first half deficit, showing signs of life in the third quarter before flailing on their final possession in a 27-17 loss. An inside linebacker room, which had already lost Devin Bush, looked lost in the absence of Robert Spillane and Vince Williams, struggling to get off blocks at the second level, and ultimately allowing the Bengals to finish the game with 152 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Ultimately, it’s hard to complain too heavily about a secondary that recorded four pass breakups on only 13 pass attempts, holding the opposing quarterback under 100 yards passing in the process. Nonetheless, although the secondary was not the primary issue, Joe Haden was fortunate that Finley missed multiple early deep shots where a receiver had him beat downfield, while the secondary simultaneously failed to produce a turnover in the game. While the defense was certainly the better unit in the game, a nine play, 80 yard drive, which included eight running plays, and was capped off by a Ryan Finley 23 yard scamper into the end zone, put Bengals up two scores late, and was nothing short of unacceptable in a must win game.
Hence, while it was a less than perfect effort from the injury plagued defensive unit, they still held the Bengals to a 28% clip on possession downs, holding the Bengals offense to 230 yards, and keeping the game within reach while the offense sputtered. Moreover, after starting the season with 24 or more points scored in every game, the Steelers offense has torpedoed over the past month, failing to record 20 points in four straight games for the first time since Ben’s rookie campaign. If there is any glimpse of hope, the Steelers much maligned running game showed signs of life in the loss, with Benny Snell finishing the game with 18 carries for 84 yards and a touchdown.
Moving forward, this team’s winning formula could likely consist of keeping the ball on the ground, potentially to the tune of 25+ carries for the Steelers backs, and passing at a lower clip to shorten games and allow the defense to protect leads. Of course, to protect a lead, the team will have to establish one first, a task which won’t prove easy, albeit against a Colts defense that has faded after a dominant start. Similar to late in the 2019 season, we have seen that no defense, no matter how elite, can suffocate teams and force turnovers with an offense that isn’t playing complimentary football, an even harder task when said offense is turning the ball over at alarming rates. All that being said, this team has two games to re-establish an offensive identity heading into a playoff run, and the impending returns of Vince Williams and potentially Robert Spillane should spark defensive improvements.
Steven Nelson- A
Against the Bengals, Steven Nelson had one of his better performances of the season, logging 56 snaps and finishing the game with two tackles, along with two pass breakups, in a game where Ryan Finley attempted just 13 passes. Early in the first quarter, deployed in man coverage on Tee Higgins while operating in a 2-man under scheme, Nelson secured his first pass breakup of the game. At the snap, Nelson patiently utilized a shuffle technique while eying Ryan Finley before staying physical at the top of the route to blanket Higgins on a five yard in route, shooting his left hand across to secure the breakup, and forcing an early Bengals punt. On the ensuing possession, with the Bengals deep in the Steelers red zone, Steven Nelson came out of his man coverage assignment as Ryan Finley scrambled to his left, maintaining his proper outside leverage, defeating the block, and forcing Finley to slide after a gain of four.
Early in the second quarter, Nelson came up as Ryan Finley ran left on a read option, breaking down and wrapping up to stop the quarterback after a gain of four yards. Just before half, operating in a 2-man under coverage on third down, Nelson utilized a catch technique, sitting with his feet planted at five yards before getting to Tee Higgins upfield shoulder with physicality, eventually getting his right hand across for the pass breakup. On the rep, Nelson displayed elite understanding of film tendencies, as the outside receiver to a trips set will run an in breaking route an overwhelming majority of the time.
Steven Nelson had arguably his best performance of the season, recording a pair of pass breakups on limited targets, and playing with confidence after a tough outing the previous week. Nelson has provided great coverage all season, albeit facing limited targets, and although his ball production is not as high as his counterpart Joe Haden, Nelson will continue to serve as a building block on this defense moving forward.
Joe Haden- C+
Against Cincinnati, Joe Haden was able to return to action after injury kept him out the week prior, logging 56 snaps and finishing the game with two tackles and a pass breakup, but nonetheless appearing vulnerable downfield far too often. Midway through the first quarter, deployed in a man coverage assignment on Tee Higgins in the red zone while operating in a Cover 1, five man pressure scheme, Haden allowed the receiver to gain 10 yards and a first down on a curl route. Haden bluffed a press alignment before moving to off coverage at the snap, opening his hips and allowing Higgins to create separation near the sticks, before coming up to tackle the catch immediately.
Late in the first quarter, deployed in a man coverage assignment on A.J. Green while operating out of a Cover 1, five man pressure scheme, Haden allowed the receiver to blow past him, creating separation down the sideline for a 30 yard reception. Haden once again bluffed a press alignment before backing off at the snap, opening toward the sideline and attempting to squeeze Green to the sideline with a two handed jam, but failing to make solid contact, and allowing the receiver easy separation. On the ensuing play, once again deployed in Cover 1, Haden bit on a stutter-and-go double move, allowing Tyler Boyd to create separation downfield. Nonetheless, Haden remained calm, rallying to get in phase with Boyd before turning his head to locate the football and skying to attack the football in the air with his right hand, securing the pass breakup and avoiding pass interference on the underthrown ball.
Early in the second quarter, aligned as the overhang defender to a nub tight end set, Haden came up to fill off the edge on a stretch run to Giovanni Bernard, allowing the back room to juke inside and rumble for the four yard touchdown.
In his first game back from injury, Haden had trouble at times, allowing receivers to gain separation downfield on multiple occasions. To his credit, Haden displayed great ball skills to secure an impressive pass breakup, but he was the target on a majority of Ryan Finley’s minimal successful attempts in the passing game. Moving into a matchup with the Indianapolis Colts, it would be great to see Haden get back on track, potentially surprising Phillip Rivers on a signature trap coverage.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- A-
In Week 15, Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to produce in his 56 defensive snaps, finishing as the team leader with seven tackles, including a key tackle for loss which gave offense a chance to tie the game late. Midway through the first quarter, with the Bengals threatening deep in the Steelers’ red zone, Minkah came down from his post safety alignment to deliver a physical stick on Samaje Perine, stopping the back after a gain of 6 yards on the inside zone run. Toward the end of the first quarter, deployed as the single high safety in a Cover 1 five man pressure scheme, Minkah read Ryan Finley’s eyes before utilizing a beautifully executed speed turn to close on Tyler Boyd, who had come open on a double move, arriving at the catch point with physicality.
Early in the second quarter, operating as the post safety in a Cover 1 scheme, Minkah rolled down to fill the alley on a Ryan Finley read option, taking a disciplined angle and wrapping up to hold the run to a gain of 6 yards, forcing a third down attempt. Later, midway through the second quarter, Minkah once again came from his post safety alignment, this time stepping up to cut down Giovanni Bernard after a gain of 11 yards.
Early in the third quarter, operating as the robber defender in a Cover 1 robber scheme, Minkah aligned in a two high safety shell pre snap before reading Ryan Finley’s eyes, and flying down to lay a physical stick on Drew Sample after a four yard gain on the slant route. Early in the fourth quarter, operating as the single high post safety, Minkah was caught with his eyes in the backfield as Ryan Finley scampered 23 yards untouched for a touchdown on a read-option play. Although Alex Highsmith certainly bears the brunt of the blame on this rep, a single high safety is always responsible as the last line of defense in both the run and pass games, and Minkah needs to show more awareness in this situation.
Late in the fourth quarter, with Cincinnati facing a 3rd down and medium attempt while attempting to salt the game away, Minkah came from his post safety alignment to shut down a Ryan Finley read option, blowing the play up in the backfield. Minkah, displaying his elite instincts, rolled down before Finley had even pulled the ball, taking a perfect angle to force Finley to stop his feet before fighting through a stiff arm to secure the tackle in the backfield.
Once again, Minkah Fitzpatrick stood out as the most impactful player in the Steelers secondary, flying all over the field and establishing a physical presence from his post safety slot. Moreover, while he is responsible for a share of the blame on Finley’s touchdown scamper, he deserves credit for learning as the game continued, punishing Cincinnati for trying to fool him twice, and securing a chance for the Steelers offense to tie the game late. Entering a game against Phillip Rivers, who is far less mobile than the Steelers previous two opponents, Minkah will likely be able to play far more aggressively in the passing game, ideally securing a key turnover to aid the Steelers struggling offense.
Terrell Edmunds- B-
On Monday night in Cincinnati, Terrell Edmunds struggled at times in his run fills, logging 44 snaps but finishing the game with just three tackles, contributing to problems at the second level which allowed the Bengals to finish the game with 152 rushing yards. On the Steelers first defensive snap, Terrell Edmunds came down from a two high safety shell, staying patient, filling the alley, and shooting low to combine with Marcus Allen for the stop after a gain of eight yards.
Late in the fourth quarter, aligned at linebacker depth, Edmunds did a good job to flow with an inside zone run to the right, flowing down the line to corral Giovanni Bernard after a short gain of four yards.
Following a great Week 14 effort, Edmunds was far less effective against Cincinnati, having trouble at times with his run fills, and struggling to get off blocks at the second level. While Edmunds was largely effective in coverage, he is certainly partially responsible for allowing the Bengals, led by Giovanni Bernard’s 83 yards, to wear them out throughout the night on the ground. Entering a matchup with the Colts, who feature a pair of talented runners in Jonathon Taylor and Nyheim Hines, Edmunds will need to rebound in a big way.
Mike Hilton- B+
In Week 15, Mike Hilton saw his snap count decrease, curiously logging just 28 defensive snaps, and finishing the game with 3 tackles on a day where his run defense could have helped solve problems caused by a lack of depth at Inside Linebacker. Early in the first quarter, Hilton aligned at linebacker depth, before expanding with Tyler Boyd in motion, and blitzing off the edge, flattening down the line to corral Giovanni Bernard after a gain of one yard, forcing a third down attempt.
Late in the first quarter, on a crucial third down, Mike Hilton came from the field side, timing his Nickel blitz perfectly, and forcing Ryan Finley to tuck and run up the middle, where he would be swallowed up by Cam Heyward, forcing a long field goal attempt, which would sail wide right. Later, toward the end of the third quarter, Hilton, aligned in the slot, followed Alex Erickson in motion folding inside to combine with Cam Heyward to stop Giovanni Bernard after a five yard gain on an inside zone run.
Although Hilton’s snaps were reduced significantly, he repeatedly impacted the run game in his snaps, impacting the game both as a blitzer, as well as filling holes in the run game. Moreover, although he was only targeted once, Hilton performed well in coverage, continuing to serve as one of the defense’s most productive players since his return.
Cameron Sutton- A-
Against the Bengals, a game which finally saw both Joe Haden and Steven Nelson healthy, Cam Sutton was relegated to 21 defensive snaps in sub-package work, recording a crucial pass breakup in the second half of the brutal loss.
Early in the third quarter, deployed in a man coverage assignment against Tee Higgins on a third down attempt, Sutton was caught flat footed in coverage, allowing the receiver to gain separation downfield. Nonetheless, Sutton remained calm, sprinted to the get back in phase with the receiver, and played up through his hands as the ball arrived, securing the pass breakup and avoiding a pass interference call on the underthrown ball.
Although he was relegated to a sub package role following the healthy status of both Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, Cam Sutton continued to produce when called upon, securing a pass breakup on his sole target of the game. While Hilton is almost certainly gone this offseason, retaining Sutton should be a top priority for this team, as his versatility allows the Steelers coaches to create answers as a pass defense. If the Steelers are able to keep the Colts behind the chains in Week 16, expect Sutton to flourish in his Dime package role yet again.
Jordan Dangerfield- A
In Cincinnati, Jordan Dangerfield continued to garner extensive special teams work, logging 22 snaps across various units, and finishing the game with a tackle. On a late first quarter punt, Dangerfield came from his personal protector spot, displaying great effort in coverage downfield, and ending a Bengals blocker to the ground with physicality before accelerating for a physical stick on Alex Erickson after an 11 yard return.
On an early second quarter kick return, Dangerfield executed a perfect kick out block, driving his man into the sideline to create a lane for Ray Ray McCloud, who would take the return 30 yards to the 35 yard line.
Once again, Jordan Dangerfield continued to provide physicality to a Steelers special teams unit which actually performed pretty well. On both the kick return and punt units, Dangerfield displayed ideal physicality and effort, helping secure key yardage for the Steelers in the field position battle.
Sean Davis- B
In Week 15, Sean Davis logged 21 snaps across various special teams units, failing to appear on the box score but providing solid effort, particularly on the punt unit.
Sean Davis was very quiet, both on the box score and the film review, although not necessarily in a bad way, providing solid protection from his wing spot on the punt unit. Although Davis has been quiet this season, he has performed adequately, if not exceptionally, across various special teams units.
Justin Layne- C+
Against the Bengals, Justin Layne was relegated to back to his usual special teams role upon Joe Haden’s return, finishing the game with 17 snaps across various units, but failing to make an appearance on the box score.
Justin Layne struggled at times, particularly in his role as a gunner, consistently failing to fight through double teams and affect the Bengals return game. Moreover, while serving as the jammer on the punt return unit, Layne failed to create space for McCloud at times, leading to plenty of fair catches on a night where the Steelers desperately needed field position.
James Pierre- A-
On Monday night in Cincinnati, James Pierre continued to serve as a key special teamer, performing well in his 17 snaps across various units. On the Steelers second punt of the night, James Pierre beat his man cleanly off the line with an impressive single stick release, stacking the jammer, and forcing Alex Erickson to signal for a fair catch, securing a net of 50 yards on the punt.
Early in the third quarter, serving as a jammer on the punt return unit, Pierre did a great job to stay connected with the Bengals gunner downfield, pushing him off balance to give McCloud space to cut back before getting his head around and throwing a physical lead block, springing the returner for a healthy 11 yards.
James Pierre failed to appear on the stat sheet, but served as one of the Steelers most impactful players on special teams in Cincinnati, continually getting downfield as a gunner to force fair catches, and helping Jordan Berry net some lengthy, field flipping punts. In a year where the Steelers saw massive turnover in their special teams personnel, Pierre has stepped up to be one of the teams most consistent special teamers as an undrafted rookie.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 35% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 16%, totaling 51% of their defensive snaps spent in sub packages. Additionally, the Steelers routinely replaced Terrell Edmunds with Cam Sutton in their 3-4 and 3-4 over Nickel sets, with base personnel, and Sutton replacing Edmunds for a more effective man coverage personnel group. Ultimately, while last week’s performance landed squarely on the shoulders of the Steelers defensive back play, the unit rebounded in Week 15, helping hold the Bengals under 100 passing yards, and relegating Finley and company to a 4-14, 28% showing on possession downs.
The secondary will have its hands full entering a Week 16 matchup with the Indianapolis Colts, who currently rank as the league’s eight best scoring offensive, with an average output of 28.5 points per game through Week 15. Nonetheless, the return of Vince Williams could ideally help the Steelers keep the Colts behind schedule on early down runs, potentially creating an opportunity for the pass rush to tee off on the immobile Phillip Rivers. Moreover, the Steelers defense, which produced 2 or more turnovers in 9 of their first 11 games, must get back on track in that department after failing to record a turnover in two of their past three games, all of which have resulted in losses.
Overall, this team certainly needs to get back to playing complimentary football, with the offense needing to rediscover an identity, protect the football, and allow the defense to protect an early lead rather than playing from behind. The Steelers defense, still an elite unit, is nearly impossible to beat when they can make an offense one dimensional, and while they need to perform better against opposing rushing attacks, jumping out to an early lead can drastically help them in this area. Hence, I would advocate for Fichtner, Canada, Roethlisberger and company to adopt a gameplan of carving out 30+ touches between Benny Snell and James Conner, as if Monday Night’s game served as any indication, Ben Roethlisberger throwing 35+ times is no longer a viable option moving into a postseason run.
I would point out that Ben’s decline may not be a death sentence, as Peyton Manning’s 2015 playoff stat line finished with 51-92 passing, 180 yards per game, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception across three game’s, supported by a running game which only averaged 99 yards per contest and netted 2 touchdowns in total. Thus, albeit unlikely, if Ben can reign in the turnovers, and the Steelers rushing attack can resemble what we saw on Monday night in Cincinnati, albeit on an increased load of carries, there is precedent which provides hope that the Ben and the Steelers offense can ride a defensive unit, which will need to be historically great, to a potential championship run.