In their Week 14 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, who entered the game 9-3, eying their first division title since 1995, the Steelers defense pitched a flawless first half performance before allowing the game to get away from them in the third quarter. While the Steelers offense, which was responsible for a momentum changing pick six just before half, and sported a woeful 10% third down conversion rate, certainly didn’t help, for the second week in a row, Butler and company failed to match the opposing offenses adjustments. As our Alex Kozora referenced in an article on Monday morning, over the past two games, the Steelers defense has allowed a combined 6 points in the first half, while simultaneously allowing 37 combined points in those second halves, speaking to a failure in self scouting and proactive adjustment making.
While Josh Allen was held to a statline of 238 passing yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, with a 55% completion rate and only 5.5 yards per attempt, he was routinely able to evade the Steelers pressure and make the necessary throws on possession downs, an area where Buffalo converted at a 50% clip. Moreover, while Cam Sutton and Steven Nelson held up well in coverage for a majority of the first half, contesting the catch point with frequency, Stephon Diggs proved to be a mismatch nightmare, helping the Bills pull away in a 14 point third quarter, and finishing the game with a whopping 10 catches, 130 yards, and a touchdown.
While the return of the unit’s top cornerback in Joe Haden should help the defense shore possession down struggles moving forward, a looming Monday Night Football matchup against the Bengals presents an ideal opportunity to get back to the basics on both sides of the ball. Overwhelmingly apparent, while this Steelers defense is certainly a Super Bowl caliber unit, if the offense can not figure out how to sustain drives and control the clock, this team is in danger of an early playoff exit. Nonetheless, with a playoff appearance clinched, the Steelers have three games to re-establish an offensive identity, and display an ability to play complimentary football, ideally getting things back on track against the Joe Burrow-less Cincinnati Bengals.
Steven Nelson- C+
In Week 14, Steven Nelson routinely contested the catch point in his 74 defensive snaps, finishing the game with six tackles and a season high three pass breakups, yet struggling to contain Stefon Diggs as the game progressed. On the Bills first third down attempt, Nelson, deployed in bracket man coverage against the talented Stefon Diggs, matched an outside release with a mirror press, before using a two hand jam to funnel the receiver toward Terrell Edmunds. While Diggs would briefly create separation, splitting the double team, Nelson’s leverage discipline allowed both defenders to stay in phase and contest the catch point, forcing an incompletion and an early punt.
Late in the first quarter, deployed in man coverage on Diggs, in a Cover 1 five man pressure scheme, Nelson aligned in off coverage, gaining depth in his backpedal before breaking efficiently to tackle the receiver after an eight yard gain on the short slant route, allowing no yards after the catch. Midway through the second quarter, operating in a man coverage assignment out of a Cover 1 Nickel blitz, Nelson bit on a Gabriel Davis stutter and go, double move, allowing separation downfield. Nonetheless, Nelson displayed elite makeup speed, tracking Davis down, playing through his hands without looking back, and forcing him out of bounds at the catch point to record his first pass breakup of the night.
On the ensuing Bills possession, operating in man coverage to the boundary out of a Cover 1 five man pressure scheme, Nelson gained depth in his backpedal before using an efficient T-step break, arriving at the catch point, and jarring the ball loose from Gabriel Davis outstretched arms with his right hand. Late in the second quarter, Nelson, working out of Cover 1 in the red zone, utilized an impressive mirror press, staying on Diggs upfield shoulder and fighting through a push off to break up a well thrown back shoulder ball.
Early in the third quarter, working in press man coverage out of a Cover 1 scheme, Nelson was turned around by a Stefon Diggs diamond release, before losing his footing on an attempted speed turn, ultimately allowing the receiver to come free for a touchdown on a slant route. Although Diggs speed must be respected, Nelson needs to understand that in the red zone, playing with heavy inside leverage is imperative, as receivers do not have room to run away from defenders downfield.
On Gabriel Davis’ 13 yard touchdown which gave the Bills a 19 point third quarter lead, operating out of a flat zone assignment in a Cover 2 scheme, Nelson was manipulated by Josh Allen, who had eyed Cole Beasley underneath, allowing the quarterback room to take a hole shot to the corner of the end zone. While Nelson is responsible for an underneath flat zone assignment, he must force Allen to throw underneath in this situation as to the field side, the safety will not make it off the hash in time to contest the throw.
While Nelson certainly had his fair share of impressive moments throughout the game, he had no answers for Stefon Diggs as the game progressed, which is unacceptable as the teams top healthy cornerback. Particularly in the red zone, Nelson struggled to play with proper leverage, ultimately taking fault for both third quarter touchdowns. Nonetheless, Stefon Diggs is the best receiver this team will face all season, and I fully expect Nelson to rebound in the teams upcoming week 15 Monday Night Football contest with the Ryan Finley led Cincinnati Bengals.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- B
Against the Bills, Minkah Fitzpatrick played all 75 defensive snaps, finishing the game with six tackles, yet failing to make a significant impact in the passing game from his post safety slot on a day where the Steelers blitzed with increased frequency. Late in the second quarter, bracketing Stefon Diggs in a Cover 1 scheme on third down, Minkah disguised his alignment well, arriving at the catch point, but failing to wrap up and bring Diggs down. Minkah threw a shoulder into the airborne Diggs, rather than playing the pocket as he has done on countless occasions, ultimately allowing Diggs to slip off for a 23 yard gain, most of which came after the catch.
Coming out of the two minute warning, Minkah cleaned up a Cover 2 coverage breakdown, coming from his deep ½ assignment to blanket Cole Beasely on a 7 route, putting himself in position to make a play on the ball if not for a overthrow. Early in the third quarter, Minkah came from his post safety slot to clean up a Devin Singletary run which had leaked to the second level, breaking down and shooting low to drop the back after a gain of 14 yards.
Midway through the third quarter, operating as a deep ½ safety, Minkah stayed home to shut down a Stefon Diggs end around, breaking down to force a cutback, and shutting down the trick play for a miniscule gain of one yard. On a critical third and long early in the fourth quarter, operating as the robber in Cover 1, Minkah came down out of control, rather than playing with patience, ultimately allowing Cole Beasely to run past him and secure a crushing first down. While some blame also falls on Justin Layne, he is working under the impression that he has Minkah as a shallow inside help defender in that coverage.
Although Minkah certainly showed bright spots in the loss, Josh Allen was able to manipulate him at times, taking advantage of his aggressiveness to draw him up on underneath routes, opening up deep shots downfield. Moreover, while Minkah’s tackling was not a glaring issue outside of one miss, he lacked the physicality which has become a trademark of his game during the latter half of his 2020 campaign. Nonetheless, moving into consecutive games against quarterbacks who lack mobility, look for Minkah to take advantage of a ferocious pass rush to record some serious splash plays in the passing game.
Terrell Edmunds- A-
Against Buffalo, Terrell Edmunds played all 75 defensive snaps, recording eight tackles while functioning effectively in the box for a majority of the game. Midway through the first quarter, Edmunds, aligned in the box at linebacker depth, stepped up to fill the D gap, meeting Zach Moss for a physical stop after a five yard gain. On the ensuing play, with Buffalo running an identical play call, Edmunds once again stepped up to fill the D gap, this time stuffing Zach Moss for a gain of three and forcing another third down attempt.
Early in the second quarter, aligned as the overhang defender to the left side, Edmunds blitzed off the edge at the snap, folding down inside to bring down Devin Singletary after a short three yard gain on the cutback run. On the ensuing drive, Edmunds, deployed in a hook/curl zone assignment in a Cover 3 scheme, stayed patient to take away Josh Allen’s first read before coming up late to stop Allen short of the sticks on a third down scramble, forcing another punt.
Late in the third quarter, on a third and medium attempt, operating in a hook/curl zone out of a Cover 3 assignment, Edmunds stayed patient at the sticks before coming up to stop Dawson Knox short of the marker on a dump off.
Overall, Terrell Edmunds actually played his best game since Jacksonville, making a living in the box and providing solid coverage when tasked with bracketing Stefon Diggs. Although Edmunds continually fails to blitz with any efficacy in the passing game, his run defense and coverage in shallow zone assignments have been flawless recently. If the Steelers are able to get back on track defensively against Cincinnati, Edmunds will certainly play a big part in their effort.
Mike Hilton- B+
In Week 14, Mike Hilton continued to play extensively in sub packages, logging 59 snaps and finishing the game with five tackles, a pass breakup, a pass deflection, and an interception, yet committing a crucial pass interference penalty late in the game. On the Bills second offensive snap, aligned as the nickel defender to a trips alignment, Hilton beat a Stefon Diggs block, blowing up an attempted swing screen intended for Devin Singletary, and forcing Josh Allen to improvise. As Allen tucked the ball down and scrambled to his left, Hilton displayed impressive effort and pursuit, tracking down the quarterback after a six yard scramble, and forcing a third down attempt.
On the ensuing possession, deployed in a flat zone assignment in a Cover 3 scheme, Hilton rerouted Gabriel Davis off the line with a two hand jam before gaining depth in his zone and keying the eyes of Josh Allen. Upon Allen’s release, which was affected by contact from Cam Heyward, Hilton located the football, sinking underneath the fluttering pass to secure his second interception of the season. On the final play of the opening quarter, deployed in a flat zone assignment in a Cover 3 scheme, Hilton gained depth before flying upfield, slipping underneath a kick out block from Jon Feliciano, and tripping up Gabriel Davis behind the line of scrimmage on a tunnel screen.
Later, midway through the second quarter, operating in man coverage on Cole Beasley, Hilton came off his man to lay a hit on Dawson Knox, jarring the ball loose on a fumble which was recovered in the air by Cam Sutton, placing the Steelers in position for their only points of the half. Early in the third quarter, aligned at linebacker depth, Mike Hilton inserted through the C gap, cutting the pulling lead blocker while simultaneously tripping up Devin Singletary after a short gain of three yards.
Midway through the third quarter, operating in press man coverage over the slot in a Cover 1 robber scheme, Hilton allowed Cole Beasley to cross his face, ultimately gaining enough separation for a contested eight yard reception which moved the chains. Midway through the fourth quarter, on a third down attempt, operating in man coverage on Dawson Knox in a two man buzz concept, Hilton committed a blatant pass interference well downfield as Josh Allen bought time scrambling to his right. While Hilton panicked with the ball in the air, a cardinal sin in defensive back play, asking your 5’8” slot corner to cover another team’s tight end with no safety help is not placing your players in positions to win.
For the second consecutive game, Mike Hilton appeared to be the best player in the secondary at times, flying around and blowing up running plays and screen plays with frequency. Moreover, Hilton had a role in both first half turnovers forced by the defense, the second of which set up the offense for one of their two scoring drives in the game. Entering a matchup with a beaten down Bengals unit, I would certainly not be surprised to see Hilton record a splash play or two, potentially adding to his sack total against a depleted offensive line.
Cameron Sutton- C+
Against the Bills, Cameron Sutton continued to fill in effectively as a starter, logging 72 snaps while replacing the injured Joe Haden, and finishing the game with two tackles, three passes defensed, and recovering a fumble, yet struggling at times against Stefon Diggs as the game progressed. Midway through the first quarter, deployed in a man coverage assignment on Gabriel Davis in a Cover 1 scheme, Sutton aligned in outside leverage to the receivers cut split before staying in phase with Davis on a crossing route. At the catch point, Sutton played through the receivers hands with aggression, securing the pass breakup and forcing another early punt.
At the onset of the second quarter, with the Bills facing third and long, Sutton, aligned over the slot receiver to the field side, came off the edge on a Nickel blitz, fighting through a Dawson Knox chip to hit Josh Allen as the pass was released. Although replay seemed to indicate that Allen’s “empty hand” had come forward, signifying a fumble, a quick whistle from the officials ruled the pass incomplete instantaneously. Nonetheless, Sutton deserves credit for staying flat on his blitz path, as well as showing no hesitation, allowing him to get to Allen in time to record the quarterback hit, even while blitzing from the field side.
On the ensuing Bills drive, deployed in a deep ⅓ assignment in a Cover 3 scheme, Sutton slipped briefly before recovering to plaster Dawson Knox downfield in a scramble drill, high pointing the football to record his breakup of the game. On the very next play, deployed in man coverage on Cole Beasley, Sutton reacted quickly as Mike Hilton lodged the ball free from Dawson Knox on a quick pass, locating the football, and snagging it out of the air with one hand for an impressive fumble recovery.
Deployed in man coverage on the first third down attempt of the second half, Cam Sutton utilized a mirror press to stay in phase with Stefon Diggs, contesting the catch point, but ultimately allowing the key third down conversion. Later in the same drive, Sutton, once again aligned in press man coverage, lost his balance on a hitch route, allowing Diggs to gain an easy 12 yards in the process. While Diggs questionably pushed off with his throw by technique, Sutton needs to stay in control at the top of the route to prevent embarrassing reps like this in the future.
On the ensuing Bills drive, operating out of a Cover 1 robber scheme, Sutton stayed over the top of a deep curl route from Stefon Diggs before triggering Josh Allen’s release, and approaching the receiver out of control, with improper leverage. On the ugly rep, which included a tough missed tackle, Sutton allowed Diggs to gain 19 yards, some of which came on yards after the catch.
For the second week in a row, Sutton displayed some elite traits early, before fading as the game progressed, proving to be no match for an elite receiver in Stefon Diggs. With Haden returning, look for Sutton to excel in his usual swiss army knife role, causing havoc for Ryan Finley in underneath zone assignments.
Jordan Dangerfield- B
Against Buffalo, Jordan Dangerfield continued to play a prominent role across various special teams units, recording 22 snaps on special teams, while simultaneously logging three defensive snaps in goal line work, yet failing to appear on the box score for his efforts. On the Steelers third punt of the night, Dangerfield stepped up from his personal protector spot to pick up an interior rusher who had come free on a twist, halting the rushers progress and providing Berry time to complete his punt operation.
While Dangerfield did not have too many notable miscues in the game, the kickoff and kick return units, of which he is a member of both, continued to struggle, helping the Bills control the field position battle for a majority of the game. Thus, as the team’s special teams captain and elder statesmen on the units, the time is now for Dangerfield to ignite a fire under the younger guys, as special teams will be imperative to this teams formula of winning moving forward, particularly with a struggling offense.
Sean Davis- B-
In Week 14, Sean Davis continued to serve in his usual special teams role, playing 21 snaps across various units while being credited with a solo tackle. Midway through the second quarter, on Pittsburgh’s first kickoff of the game, Davis got downfield with urgency, before fighting through a block from former teammate Tyler Matakevich, and eventually folding inside to trip up Andre Roberts just shy of the 25 yard line.
While Davis did record a tackle on a nice rep against Matakevich, he displayed an overall lack of physicality and effort throughout the game, consistently finishing plays content with being blocked. Moreover, issues showed up again on the punt unit, where he relied too heavily on the cut block, a tendency which has been shown on tape, and nearly caused him to allow a blocked punt in this one.
Justin Layne- B-
Against Buffalo, Justin Layne continued to receive Dime work in Joe Haden’s absence, logging 11 defensive snaps while simultaneously serving his usual special teams role, receiving 16 snaps across various units and finishing the game with two tackles. On the Steelers second punt of the night, Justin Layne recorded an impressive rep from his gunner spot, beating the jammer off the line with a speed release, before folding back inside to force an Andre Roberts fair catch.
On an early third quarter punt, Layne struggled to fight through a double team, allowing himself to be washed down inside before rallying with effort to track down Andre Roberts on a 21 yard return which came back on a penalty. On a third down attempt in the red zone, Layne had a great rep, displaying fluid footwork off the line and using his length to frustrate Gabriel Davis, forcing him out the back of the end zone before plastering in a scramble drill and forcing the incompletion.
Overall, Layne put together a solid, if not great, performance on special teams, displaying consistent effort and providing effective work throughout the game in the gunner role. Moreover, Layne actually appeared more comfortable in his defensive snaps than he did a week ago, playing with confidence, and proving himself, particularly in the red zone.
James Pierre- B-
Against the Bills, James Pierre continued to garner extensive work on special teams, logging 16 snaps across various units and making positive contributions as a gunner, yet failing to make an appearance on the stat sheet. On Pittsburgh’s second punt of the night, Pierre utilized an impressive single stick release to beat the jammer cleanly up the sideline, eventually stacking his man to force an Andre Roberts fair catch, albeit on a short punt which netted only 35 yards. On the Steelers next punt, Pierre beat his man cleanly to the inside with another single stick release, smartly settling down behind Andre Roberts to down the ball inside the 15 yard line.
On the Bills first punt of the second quarter, Pierre was beat cleanly off the line with an inside release, slipping and allowing his man to run free, eventually tackling McCloud after a return of no gain, and netting the Bills 54 yards to flip the field. On a late second quarter Steelers punt, Pierre displayed great effort, splitting a double team with physicality and speed to force another Andre Roberts fair catch, netting 46 yards on Berry’s punt.
On a late third quarter Bills punt, Pierre stayed in phase with the gunner downfield before slipping late in the rep, and forcing McCloud to let a punt bounce when he likely would have had room for a decent return.
Although he had an overwhelmingly good game as a gunner, Pierre’s struggles as a jammer have played a large role in McCloud’s recent struggles in the punt return game. With an offense that has struggled to move the ball, it is imperative to get the return game back on its feet, gaining key field position to create shorter fields and more scoring opportunities.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 63% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 16% of their defensive snaps, totaling 79% of their defensive snaps spent in sub packages. While that figure is one of the highest in the 2020 campaign, much of that can be attributed to the team’s lack of depth at inside linebacker, as well as the Bills propensity to spread teams out with 10 and 11 personnel sets. Overwhelmingly disappointing, after a long stretch of good play on possession downs, the defense consistently failed to get off the field on third downs, allowing the Bills to convert at a 50% clip, and possess the ball for a majority of the second half.
While Keith Butler’s decision to blitz Josh Allen at wildly high rates proved effective in the first half, Allen was routinely able to escape the rush out to his right and punish man coverage downfield as the game went on. Moreover, Stefon Diggs, a world class receiver in his own right, punished the Steelers secondary on any occasion where he was singled up, routinely creating separation against Cam Sutton and Steven Nelson as the game progressed. Nonetheless, just as with Baker Mayfield, allowing Josh Allen to escape to his right is a recipe for disaster, and it’s hard to blame the secondary too heavily on a day where the pass rush struggled to frustrate Allen as the game progressed.
Moving into a critical Week 15 primetime road matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, with an opportunity to clinch the AFC North in a victory, the return of Joe Haden should ideally help the defense get back on track entering the playoff stretch. Against a Bengals offense, which has allowed 3.5 sacks per game and is giving the ball away about 1.7 times per game, the Steelers secondary should focus on limiting big plays, contesting the catch point on possession downs, and producing turnovers to place their struggling offense in winnable situations. While the offense could certainly improve down the stretch, it is becoming readily apparent that this defense will need to be elite to carry their struggling offense to playoff victories, creating opportunistic turnovers and winning on possession downs with consistency.