In their pivotal Week 16 matchup against the surging Indianapolis Colts, who entered the game sporting a 10-4 record, the Steelers dug themselves into a 17 point deficit midway through the third quarter, before an offensive eruption brought the team to life, culminating in a come from behind, 28-24 win. Although the defense struggled to defend the run for much of the first half, they rebounded mightily in the second half, holding a talented Colts offense to three points, securing a late turnover courtesy of Mike Hilton, and holding off a final Colts drive to secure a crucial victory. Although he had success when able to stay on script in the first half, the Steelers defense held Phillip Rivers to a stat line of 22-35, 270 yards, a touchdown, and a pick, meanwhile sacking him five times along the way, including a T.J. Watt strip sack.
While the secondary struggled at times, most notably on a first half deep ball touchdown to Zach Pascal, they were able to hold the talented T.Y. Hilton to three catches for 60 yards, holding the Colts offense to a 35% conversion rate on possession downs in the process. Notably, Mike Hilton helped force two turnovers on the game, both of which proved crucial in the comeback victory, while Minkah Fitzpatrick forced Phillip Rivers to hold onto the football repeatedly in the second half while serving as a robber defender in their patented Cover 1 scheme. Moreover, the second half finally saw the team return to playing complimentary football, combining explosive plays on offense with timely sacks and turnovers on defense, seizing control of the game while simultaneously outlining a blueprint for playoff success.
Nonetheless, the team will certainly need to sure up their run defense heading into January after allowing the Colts to rush for 127 yards while averaging a healthy 4.5 yards per clip, most of which came in the first half. While the return of Robert Spillane should certainly provide a boost in that department, this team will be able to win games as long as they continue to excel in situational football defensively, meanwhile forcing timely turnovers to create short fields for their offense. Ultimately, the reemergence of Ben Roethlisberger, who finished the game 34-49, with 342 yards and three touchdowns, most of which came in the second half, helped right the ship and provide the team with momentum entering a playoff run, as well as opening the door for the much anticipated Mason Rudolph revenge game.
Steven Nelson- B+
In Week 16, Steven Nelson played all 69 snaps, playing with physicality throughout en route to a six tackle finish, meanwhile having a late, potential game sealing interception, stripped away via a pass interference call. Early in the second quarter, operating out of a deep 1/3 assignment in a Cover 3 scheme, Nelson utilized a bail technique, gaining depth while eying T.Y. Hilton, before losing his footing while attempting to break on a comeback route, ultimately re-gaining his footing to force Hilton out of bounds after a gain of 25 yards. An issue that would continue to plague Nelson in the later stages of this game, he was caught “stepping in the bucket”, or planting outside of his frame, multiple times while attempting to break, a cardinal sin of defensive back play.
Late in the third quarter, operating in press man coverage on T.Y. Hilton in a Cover 1 robber scheme, Nelson displayed patient footwork off the line with a mirror press technique before using an off hand jam to squeeze the receiver to the sideline, allowing no separation as the pass fell harmlessly to the turf. Early in the fourth quarter, operating out of a Cover 1 Nickel blitz, Nelson aligned at depth, taking a read step before flying out of his break to stick Michael Pittman on a spot route, finishing with physicality reminiscent of his predecessor Mel Blount.
Just before the two minute warning, Nelson, deployed in a flat zone assignment in an inverted Cover 2 scheme, passed off T.Y. Hilton with an “in” call before rallying up on a swing pass to Nyheim Hines, breaking down, and stopping the back for no gain. Two plays later, operating in press coverage while working out of a Cover 1 scheme, Nelson mirrored Hilton’s inside release, fighting to hold his outside leverage, and becoming tangled with the receiver before undercutting the out route for what appeared to secure a game sealing interception. Ultimately, the play was waived via pass interference, and while it’s tough to argue the call on the surface, with the amount of physicality that receivers like Diggs and Hilton are able to get away with in today’s game, it makes plays like this one seem to potentially be more along the lines of incidental contact between the two players.
The very next play, once again operating out of a Cover 2 flat zone assignment, Nelson gained depth to take away Rivers first read before coming up to lay a physical stick on Nyheim Hines, holding the swing pass to a gain of just four yards. Two plays later, once again aligned in press man coverage out of a Cover 1 robber scheme, Nelson mirrored Hilton’s inside release off the line, maintaining proper leverage, before slipping as he attempted to open with the receiver on a throw by move into an out route. While Nelson certainly needs to show better balance in this situation, receivers being allowed to exercise noticeable physicality downfield, compounded with calls like the one we saw Nelson receive two plays earlier, can make the games toughest receivers nearly unrecoverable.
Merely two plays later, deployed in a 2 man under scheme, Nelson hopped inside at the snap, putting himself into trail technique, before face guarding Hilton on a stop route at the sticks, forcing a key incompletion in the process.
Overall, although Nelson struggled to maintain his footing at times during the game, he played a large part in shutting down the Colts top weapon, T.Y. Hilton, for a majority of the game with tight, press man coverage. While Nelson lacks the ball skills of his counterpart Joe Haden, he is adept in man coverage, and is the Steelers best option in erasing opposing teams top options. While Nelson’s early season struggles were well documented, he has rebounded mightily as the season progressed, returning to his 2019 form in time for a playoff run.
Joe Haden- B-
Against Indianapolis, Joe Haden played all 69 defensive snaps, finishing the game with a pair of tackles, while rebounding nicely in coverage after allowing a deep ball touchdown to Zach Pascal late in the first half. Midway through the third quarter, with the Colts in a goal to go situation, Joe Haden aligned as the overhang defender to the nub tight end set, filling off the edge to meet Taylor in the backfield, but failing to wrap up properly, allowing the back to squirm free and fall into the end zone.
Late in the second quarter, operating out of a Cover 1 pressure scheme, Joe Haden aligned with heavy outside leverage to Zach Pascal’s cut split, ultimately being out leveraged by the “bang eight” post route, and allowing a 42 yard touchdown. While Haden certainly bears responsibility for not being able to stay in phase downfield, the Colts used a great levels play design to create conflict for the Minkah in the post, pulling him forward with an over route, and vacating Haden’s inside help to capitalize downfield. Moreover, the Steelers sent a crossfire pressure from their inside linebackers which was picked up perfectly by the Colts protection, leaving the Steelers secondary vulnerable to a downfield shot.
While Haden did certainly factor into helping shutdown T.Y. Hilton in a game where he was rarely targeted, his declining athleticism was exposed on an early deep ball to Zach Pascal, while he also whiffed on a key opportunity to keep Jonathon Taylor out of the end zone. Nonetheless, on the last drive, Haden repeatedly blanketed receivers in 2 man under schemes, where his exploitable athleticism is protected, and his veteran savvy allows him to maximize his talents.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- A-
Against the Colts, Minkah played all 69 defensive snaps, once again providing a physical presence over the middle of the field and finishing the game with eight tackles, as well as a late pass breakup, nearly securing a game-clinching interception on the play. Early in the first quarter, Minkah came up from his post safety slot to force Jonathon Taylor out of bounds on a misdirection toss which had the entire defense fooled, taking an efficient angle to limit the run to a gain of 11. Two plays later, with the Colts in the red zone, Minkah once again came up from his post safety alignment to lay a physical hit on Nyheim Hines, who had scampered untouched to the second level, limiting the back to a gain of 11 and keeping him out of the end zone.
On the ensuing possession, Minkah once again came from his post safety alignment to cut down Jonathon Taylor, who had exploded into the second level after juking Edmunds in the hole, forcing a third down attempt. Later, midway through the second quarter, Minkah came from a two high safety shell, inserting into the box, breaking down, and shooting low to cut down Jonathon Taylor with physicality after a short, five yard gain. Late in the third quarter, on a Colts third down attempt from within their own five yard line, operating as the post safety in a Cover 1 robber scheme, Minkah diagnosed screen immediately, filling the alley to combine with Alex Highsmith, stopping Zach Pascal short of the sticks to force a punt.
Midway through the third quarter, one possession after the Steelers had secured their first lead of the game, Minkah once again came down from his post safety alignment to stop Nyheim Hines after a gain of 10 yards, combining with Avery Williamson on the tackle. Late in the fourth quarter, operating as the robber in a Cover 1 scheme, Minkah came from a two high safety shell to rob the middle of the field, reading Rivers eyes before breaking beautifully on a pass intended for Jack Doyle, narrowly missing a diving attempt at a game clinching interception. Minkah is as good at manipulating quarterbacks as any safety in football right now, and while he will occasionally lose the chess match as we saw earlier on Pascal’s touchdown, the benefits far outweigh the negatives with Minkah’s aggressiveness.
Once again, as he does on a weekly basis, Minkah stood out as one of the best players on the entire Steelers defense, setting a physical tone across the middle of the field in all facets of the game. Moreover, the Steelers deployed Minkah heavily as a robber in Cover 1 schemes throughout the second half, forcing Phillip Rivers to hold the ball and make tough throws outside the numbers, allowing the pass rush to get home repeatedly.
Terrell Edmunds- B+
In Week 16, Terrell Edmunds logged 61 defensive snaps, finishing the game with five tackles, providing solid run defense throughout, and nearly corralling an early red zone interception. Early in the first quarter, with the Colts threatening at the Steelers goal line, Edmunds, deployed in a zone coverage assignment, expanded toward the sideline at the snap before undercutting a seven route intended for Jack Doyle, high pointing the football, and nearly corralling his third pick of the season. Although Edmunds failed to hang onto the football, largely due to some impressive defensive back play by the tight end, he displayed great play recognition and ball skills on the rep, further displaying his improvements from years past.
On the Colts final first half possession, aligned at linebacker depth, stepping up to fill the C-gap and shooting low to cut down Nyheim Hines with a physical tackle after a gain of five yards. The very next play, which was waived off by an illegal block in the back, Edmunds displayed elite pursuit, effort, and athleticism, coming from a man coverage assignment across the field, before sprinting over 100 yards to chase down Nyheim Hines and force him out of bounds within the 10 yard line. Late in the fourth quarter, operating out of a 2 man buzz scheme, Edmunds stayed patient before opening to match T.Y. Hilton, who had come open up the seam, getting in phase before turning to locate the football, and leaving the receiver nothing to do but dive in hopes of drawing a pass interference call. Overall, Edmunds displayed excellent ball skills on the rep, not panicking, and using his body to take away any path Hilton may have had to locate the football, which landed harmlessly in the end zone, forcing a fourth down attempt.
Although Edmunds had his fair share of missed tackles in the box, he was tremendous throughout the game in both man and zone coverage assignments, nearly securing a key red zone interception early in the game. Moreover, he showed his ball skills again on a late deep ball to T.Y. Hilton, saving a touchdown by sealing off the receivers path to the ball, and displaying his extensive coverage improvements made this season.
Mike Hilton- A
Against Indianapolis, Mike Hilton logged 42 snaps in sub-package work, often standing out as the team’s best defensive player en route to finishing the game with four tackles, a late interception, a pair of pass deflections, and a fumble recovery which set the Steelers up for their only offensive points of the first half. Late in the first quarter, Hilton came on a perfectly timed Nickel blitz, flying off the edge untouched, and bending down the line to cut down Nyheim Hines after a short gain of two yards, forcing a third down attempt. On the ensuing snap, deployed in a man coverage assignment on T.Y. Hilton while operating out of a Cover 1 robber scheme to a trips set, Hilton maintained proper outside leverage against the seven route, forcing the receiver to take an inside release before playing up through T.Y. ‘s hands at the catch point to secure the pass breakup.
On the ensuing possession, Hilton once again came on a Nickel blitz, showing his awareness to scoop up a fumble forced by T.J. Watt, rumbling for 14 yards before being hawked by Jonathon Taylor, placing the offense at the Colts three yard line. The turnover would net the Steelers their only points of the first half on a James Conner touchdown, although Hilton may have scored himself if not for an official blocking his path to the endzone. Just before half, Hilton, aligned as the Nickel defender, diagnosed run, flew off the edge into the backfield, and chased down Nyheim Hines from the weak side, holding the back to a gain of two yards.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Steelers protecting a one possession lead, Hilton blanketed Michael Pittman downfield, staying on top of the receiver up the seam while simultaneously tracking the ball the entire way, catching the overthrown ball in stride to secure a crucial turnover down the stretch. While Hilton is consistently maligned by the fanbase for his pass coverage woes, he is a natural playmaker with the football in the air, and is consistently able to produce splash plays in coverage, even when significantly outmatched in size.
Ultimately receiving Week 16 AFC Defensive player of the week awards for his efforts, Mike Hilton was unquestionably the most impactful player on the Steelers defense throughout the game, wreaking havoc as a run defender, blitzer, and making plays in both man and zone coverage assignments. Moreover, Mike Hilton has a knack for the football, exemplified by his involvement in all four turnovers forced by the Steelers over their past four games, a trait which will be crucial entering the postseason.
Cameron Sutton- B
Against the Colts, Cameron Sutton logged 25 snaps in sub-package work, finishing the game with a tackle, while providing solid coverage in his Dime package reps. On the Colts first third down attempt, deployed in a 2 man under assignment on Michael Pittman, Sutton bluffed a Nickel blitz before opening to match the receiver, ultimately allowing Pittman to cross his face for a gain of 26 yards on the catch and run. While Sutton did a good job of getting hands on Pittman off the line, he needs to be more physical to effect the receivers release, getting to his upfield shoulder to contest the throw and prevent yards after the catch.
Late in the third quarter, serving as the flat zone defender in a Cover 3 scheme on third and long, Sutton bluffed a Nickel blitz before gaining depth, sinking underneath the number one receiver to take away Rivers first read, before coming up to tackle a checkdown to Trey Burton short of the sticks.
In a game where Sutton was rarely targeted, he performed well in coverage in his extensive sub package work, meanwhile continuing to sub for Terrell Edmunds in the Steelers 3-4 Nickel package. One area where Sutton has continued to improve is his ability to disguise his pre snap alignments, adding extra confusion for quarterbacks in their pre snap reads.
Jordan Dangerfield- B
In Week 16, Jordan Dangerfield logged 21 snaps across various special teams units, failing to appear on the stat sheet but continuing to set a physical tone throughout the contest.
On an early second quarter punt, Dangerfield stepped up from his personal protector spot to lay a cut block on a rusher who had come free through the A-gap on a designed rush, allowing Jordan Berry to cleanly complete his punt operation. On a late second quarter kickoff, Dangerfield was flagged for a holding call on a 23 yard return by Ray Ray McCloud. Although Dangerfield let go almost immediately, the officials determined they saw enough to throw the flag, losing yards for the Steelers in the ever important hidden yardage battle.
Although Dangerfield committed a penalty on the kick return unit, losing the Steelers field position in the process, he otherwise had a usual game for himself, setting a physical tone for the Steelers special teams units. Moving forward, he will need to get his guys together, and figure out issue’s in punt coverage, where Nyheim Hines had a field day, averaging over 20 yards per return on the afternoon.
Sean Davis- B
Against Indianapolis, Sean Davis continued to serve his traditional special teams role, logging 16 snaps across various units, but failing to make an appearance on the stat sheet yet again.
On a late third quarter punt return which saw the ball squirt free, although it was not ruled a fumble, Davis was once again ready and in position to fall on the football, as he has done before this season, speaking to his football IQ as a veteran on his second stint with the team.
In another quiet day from Davis, he continued to show veteran savvy, but lacked physicality, particularly on the punt unit, where he relied far too heavily on cut blocks from his wing spot.
Justin Layne- A-
Against the Colts, Justin Layne continued to serve in his traditional special teams role, logging 16 snaps across various units, and finishing the game with two tackles, tying newcomer Cassius Marsh for a team high on the afternoon. On a late third quarter Indianapolis punt, Layne mirrored the gunner’s inside release, staying in phase before washing the gunner down to create a lane for Ray Ray McCloud, who would take the punt eight yards before being tripped up.
Early in the fourth quarter, Layne recorded a great rep serving as the contain man on the kickoff unit, getting downfield with speed before setting a physical edge to stun Michael Pittman, disengaging from the blocker and combining with Derek Watt to stop Tremon Smith after a return of 18 yards. On the next kickoff, midway through the fourth quarter, Layne once again displayed his physicality, setting a physical edge to thwart a kick out block from Michael Pittman, this time halting the returner after a gain of 19 yards.
Overall, Justin Layne may have had his best performance of the season as a special teamer, particularly on the kickoff unit, where he repeatedly displayed physicality to set hard edges and make stops throughout the game.
James Pierre- B+
In Week 16, James Pierre continued to serve as a bright spot for the Steelers special teams units, collecting a tackle in his 16 snaps in which he served various roles. On Pittsburgh’s second punt of the afternoon, Pierre used an impressive single stick release to beat his man off the line to the inside before folding back outside, preventing Nyheim Hines from fielding the short punt which would roll inside the Colts 10 yard line. On Jordan Berry’s next punt Pierre failed to gain separation from the jammer, overpursuing Nyheim Hines, who surprised the coverage by fielding the punt, at which point Pierre defeated his man, and displayed great effort to track the returner down after a gain of 26 yards.
Late in the second quarter, Pierre was swallowed up by a double team while working as a gunner, allowing Nyheim Hines a nice lane toward the sideline, culminating in a 22 yard return, which set the Colts up north of midfield. On the Steelers final punt, Pierre once again utilized an impressive single stick release, using the jammers blind spot to his advantage before stacking him, and forcing Nyheim Hines to signal for a fair catch inside the Colts 20 yard line.
Although Pierre struggled at times against double teams, his effort while serving as a gunner was great, per usual, with his best rep coming on the final punt, where he forced Hines into a fair catch, forcing the Colts to march 85 yards on their last drive, where the Steelers defense would secure a key stop.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 32% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 30%, totaling just 62% of their defensive snaps spent in sub packages. While that number is down from recent weeks, much of this can be attributed to a Colts running game, which went to work on the Steelers defense throughout much of the first half. Nonetheless, as the Steelers blitzes failed to get home in the first half, they adjusted, repeatedly deploying Minkah Fitzpatrick as a robber defender throughout the second half, taking away easy throws from Phillip Rivers. Thus, once the defense was able to get the Colts offense off script, the pass rush was able to repeatedly get home throughout the second half.
In a must win game, the defense stepped up in the second half, holding the Colts to three points, while forcing a key turnover late, allowing the offense to burn some clock before securing a final stop in a two minute offense situation. Moreover, just one week after I outline Peyton Manning’s 2015 Super Bowl run, I couldn’t be happier to say Big Ben has made me eat my words, rediscovering his deep ball to reignite a Steelers offense which looked dead in the water for the better part of a month. If the Steelers offense can continue to hit big plays in the passing game to compliment their opportunistic defense, this team has re-emerged as a threat to Kansas City and Buffalo in the AFC.
Moving into a Week 17 contest with the Cleveland Browns, Tomlin has stated that the Steelers will rest Ben Roethlisberger, “among others”, a list which will likely include defensive starters Cam Heyward, Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt, and potentially T.J. Watt. Moreover, other defensive stalwarts such as Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson could be on limited snap counts, allowing guys like Justin Layne, James Pierre, and Sean Davis chances to prove their worth. Nonetheless, it is overwhelmingly apparent that the Steelers are back, riding their best half of football into a wildcard weekend matchup at Heinz Field, which is likely to come against the Browns, Ravens, or Dolphins, although the Colts and Titans are both unlikely opponents as well.