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DB Report Card: Steelers Vs Ravens

In their Week 12 matchup, a Wednesday afternoon game against the division rival Baltimore Ravens, who entered the game at 6-4, the Steelers defense did its job, holding the Ravens offense to 219 total yards in a 19-14 victory.  The Steelers defensive backs helped hold the Ravens to 90 total passing yards on the game, a figure which could have appeared much lower if not for a late coverage breakdown, one which allowed Marquise Brown to scamper 70 yards and tighten the game late.  Moreover, the secondary tackled well, helping clean up second level runs as the front seven struggled to hold contain on the edges at times.

Early on, Joe Haden got the scoring started with a beautiful two to one read, jumping a pivot route and taking it back to the crib to put the Steelers up 6-0, recording his first pick six as a Steeler in the process.  Minkah Fitzpatrick also chipped in an impressive performance, staying calm with the ball in the air and playing through Luke Willson’s hands to break up a potential touchdown as the half expired, while nearly corralling a game sealing interception late.  Ultimately, it’s hard to fault a unit that helped hold the Ravens to 3-13 on possession downs, and allowed only one first down conversion through the air all afternoon, albeit against a combination of Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley.

While the Steelers offense certainly did not hold up their end of the bargain, posting an atrocious performance in the red zone against a depleted Ravens defense, it was encouraging to see the defense do enough to help the team escape with the win.  Moving into a short week with a looming matchup against the Washington Football Team, Steven Nelson’s MRI results will certainly be a situation to monitor, as his man coverage abilities will be needed against an elite receiver in Terry McLaurin.  Ultimately, while the game was not the cakewalk many had predicted, a Steelers-Ravens matchup rarely is, and the sloppy performance should give Mike Tomlin ammunition to get his team refocused down the stretch, with a race for the ever important number one seed looming.

Joe Haden- A

In Week 12, Joe Haden continued to build on his productive 2020 season, logging 51 snaps and recording 2 tackles, a tackle for a loss, and an impressive pick six to put the Steelers up early.

Midway through the first quarter, Haden displayed his veteran instincts, executing a Cover 2 man trap concept to perfection, flying out of his break to jump a pivot route intended for James Proche, and returning it 14 yards to put the Steelers on the board.  At the snap, Haden aligned at depth, keying James Proche in a 2-1 read before flying out of his break to undercut the pass before the receiver could even react, ultimately staying on his feet through a stumble to get into the end zone.  Haden has made plays while operating out of this same coverage scheme in the past, notably grabbing a key interception in the Steelers Week 14 matchup against Arizona just last season, while nearly repeating the feat earlier this season late in a Week 5 matchup against Cleveland.

Later, on the Ravens first offense possession of the second quarter, Haden, aligned as the overhang defender to a nub tight end set, beating Justice Hill to the edge before slipping under a Luke Willson block and wrapping the back up for an impressive tackle for a loss.  Haden’s run defense continues to be an asset for the Steelers, particularly to nub tight end sets, where the corner often assumes contain responsibilities to the edge.

Joe Haden continued his recent streak of dominant play, putting together another flawless effort against the division rival Baltimore Ravens.  While Haden provided splash early on with an impressive pick six, his tight coverage and physical run support throughout the game were equally impressive.  This Steelers defense possesses a top level cornerback duo, and playing behind the league’s best pass rush has allowed Haden to unlock the best version of himself, one which can read quarterbacks and play aggressively without the threat of being attacked vertically.

Steven Nelson- A-

Against Baltimore, Steven Nelson added to his quietly impressive 2020 campaign, recording 48 snaps and making an impact early with a physical tackle for a loss on third down, continuing providing sticky coverage and rarely seeing targets for the remainder of the afternoon.  A situation to monitor, Nelson did receive an MRI on his knee after the game, and while it is a good sign that he was able to finish, his status for Monday’s game against Washington could potentially be in question.

On the game’s first third down attempt, Nelson announced his presence early while operating out of a flat zone assignment to the boundary side of a Cover 6 scheme, coming up from his corner spot to stick Justice Hill in the backfield, and recording his second tackle for a loss in the past two games.  At the snap, Nelson communicated an “in” call before expanding with Justice Hill on a swing route, aggressively closing space, and loading up to lay a physical stick on the back, firing up the sideline in the process.

 

Midway through the fourth quarter, operating out of Cover 2 zone, Nelson read the eyes of trace McSorley, baiting him into a short throw to Dez Bryant, which came in off target, but likely would have been intercepted or broken up by Nelson with better placement from the young quarterback.

Steven Nelson continues to quietly add to an extremely productive 2020 campaign on a weekly basis, making one to two standout plays a week while being targeted scarcely.  Week 12 proved no different, with Nelson making two standout plays, and providing tight coverage throughout the afternoon to help the defense render the Ravens pass game ineffective.  As of Friday, Nelson has yet to practice, still listed on the injury report with a knee injury, a developing issue which we should receive more answers on heading into the weekend.  If Nelson ultimately fails to suit up on Monday, expect Cameron Sutton to assume his snaps in base, with Justin Layne bumping to the boundary corner slot in Dime packages.

Minkah Fitzpatrick- A-

In Week 12, Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to provide a steady presence from his safety position, logging 54 snaps while recording four tackles and two impactful pass breakups, one of which came in the end zone to preserve a narrow lead entering halftime.  Directly after McCloud’s disastrous fumble, Minkah took a great angle, coming from his post safety slot to force a cutback and shooting low to chop down Robert Griffin III inside the five yard line on a quarterback sweep which had leaked into the second level.

Just before half, Minkah Fitzpatrick once again came from his post safety slot to bring down Justice Hill, saving a would-be touchdown by forcing a cutback and wrapping Hill around the waist to stop the back inside the Pittsburgh 5 after a run of 19 yards.  On the final play before the half, Minkah displayed sensational football IQ and technique, stepping up to read run before flipping his hips, driving to an open Luke Willson, remaining calm with the ball in the air, and playing through the tight ends hands as he ball arrived.  Although the play call and execution were both excellent for Baltimore, with Luke Willson faking a block before releasing to the corner of the end zone wide open, Minkah was able to remain poised and make a spectacular play to jar the ball loose, keeping Baltimore from taking the lead before half.

 

Midway through the fourth quarter, Minkah continued to provide elite run defense from his post safety slot, coming from midfield to lay a punishing hit which sent Trace McSorley out of bounds after a gain of six yards on a quarterback sweep.  Midway through the fourth quarter, operating out of a deep 1/2 assignment in a Cover 2 man concept, Fitzpatrick gained depth before flowing to the sideline as McSorley escaped the pocket, undercutting a pass intended for Marquise Brown, who had got open late in the scramble drill.  It appeared for a second that Fitzpatrick had corralled the game winning interception, but the pass ultimately fell off his fingertips, leaving the Ravens in a third and long situation.

While the majority of the blame for Marquise Brown’s 70 yard touchdown falls on Terrell Edmunds, as I outline below, Minkah Fitzpatrick ultimately over pursued on the play, allowing Brown to turn him around and get into the end zone.  Ideally you would like to see Minkah do a better job of staying disciplined and tracking Marquise Brown’s back hip here to keep him short of the end zone in what was otherwise a flawless individual performance.

Minkah Fitzpatrick produced an outstanding performance against the Ravens sans the miscue on Marquise Brown’s late touchdown.  While Minkah’s tackling was briefly in question early in the season, he has corrected his issue’s, providing physicality and fundamentals, consistently cleaning up second level runs from his post safety slot.  Moreover, Minkah single handedly kept the Ravens off the board on a play action pass which had the entire defense caught with their pants down, showing poise and composure to record the clutch pass breakup.  Although turnovers have become Minkah’s calling card, games like this one show why Minkah might be well on his way to another All-pro season.

Terrell Edmunds- B-

Against the Ravens, Terrell Edmunds continued to stay active against the run in his 48 defensive snaps, finishing the game with four tackles, but nonetheless taking sloppy angles at times, none more evident than a miss which allowed Marquise Brown to bring the game within one score late.  On Baltimore’s first offensive snap, Edmunds, deployed as the cap defender in a Cover 1 nickel blitz, displayed great pursuit and physicality to fight through a Dez Bryant block and tackle the speedy Marquise “Hollywood” Brown after a short gain of five on an orbit motion screen.  At the snap, Edmunds diagnosed the screen immediately, flowing laterally, using physicality to beat Dez Bryant’s stock block and corralling Brown near the sideline with a sound form tackle.

On the final play before the two minute warning, with the Ravens facing a 3rd and long, the Steelers were caught off guard as the Ravens dialed up a quarterback midline iso on third and long with the defense operating out of Cover 1 robber scheme.  Edmunds, the post safety on the play, displayed a lack of patience, taking a questionable angle, and missing a shoestring tackle, which gave Robert Griffin III a lane to scamper for 39 yards. Just before half, with 26 seconds remaining and Baltimore out of timeouts, Edmunds, aligned as the overhang defender, inserted off the edge at the snap, arriving with physicality to halt Gus Edwards for no gain.  The stop, officially split by Edmunds and Chris Wormley, would prove crucial, as the Ravens would not snap the ball again until three seconds remained, opting for a pass to Luke Willson which was broken up by Minkah Fitzpatrick as the clock expired.

Following T.J. Watt’s second sack of the afternoon, with the Ravens facing third and long, Edmunds came down from a two high safety shell to lay a physical stick on Justice Hill after a short gain of six, forcing yet another Ravens punt.  Early in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens facing third and long, Edmunds came down as the “sky” defender in a Cover 3 zone assignment to lay a physical hit on Devin Duvernay, driving him back and keeping him short of the sticks to force another punt.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers protecting a two possession lead, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin once again dialed up their Cover 2 man trap coverage, causing Joe Haden to correctly jump the pivot route once again.  Inexplicably, Edmunds replaced over the top correctly, but made an ill- advised attempt at playing the ball, coming nowhere close and leaving Marquise Brown dashing down the sideline for a 70 yard touchdown, one which made the game feel far closer than it needed to.  The play is a perfect example of why defensive backs are taught to drive the man, not the ball, and moreover, Edmunds needs to understand that while protecting a two possession lead, tackling the catch in this situation is more than okay, particularly against a Ravens offense which couldn’t get anything going in the passing game all afternoon.

Ultimately, outside of two glaring miscues, Terrell Edmunds was his usual 2020 self, flying to the football with great pursuit angles and finishing with physicality in both the run and the pass game.  Nonetheless, considering his second miscue single handedly gave the Ravens life in a game that was otherwise well in hand, it is an aspect of the game that simply can not be overlooked.  While the 2020 campaign has seen Edmunds form an elite safety duo with Minkah Fitzpatrick, his lack of situational awareness nearly cost them a victory, and needs to be corrected moving into a contest with Washington.

Mike Hilton- B+

Against Baltimore, Mike Hilton was featured prominently in the game plan, logging 29 snaps in sub packages while recording two tackles in the win.  Within the final minute of the half, with the Ravens threatening deep in the Steelers red zone, Mike Hilton came unblocked to fill the D-gap, aiming low to bring down Justice Hill just shy of the end zone after a short three yard gain.  The stop would ultimately prove crucial, as the Steelers would gain stops on ensuing consecutive plays, which coupled with some questionable time management from Baltimore, would prevent the Ravens from chipping into the Steelers lead before half.

Early in the third quarter, with the Ravens attempting a third and medium, Mike Hilton aligned pre-snap at linebacker depth before inserting through the A gap to trip up Robert Griffin III on a quarterback counter.  While Griffin would ultimately fall forward for five yards to gain the first down, it is encouraging to see Hilton beginning to affect an opposing teams running game once again in his second game back from injury.

Mike Hilton appeared to resemble his play from early in the season, knifing into the backfield on multiple occasions, none bigger than a goal line stop just before the half expired.  Hilton will certainly look to play a large role in stopping the dynamic Antonio Gibson Jr., who comes fresh off a 115 yard, 3 touchdown rushing performance against Dallas on Thanksgiving day.

Cameron Sutton- B

In a Week 12 game in which the Ravens passing game was rendered non-existent, Cameron Sutton saw his usage drop, logging 11 snaps while recording a tackle on the afternoon.

Midway through the first quarter with the Steelers in a five man pressure Cover 1 scheme, tasked with a man coverage assignment in the slot against Devin Duvernay, Sutton displayed good patience and close, blanketing Duvernay to the sideline.  At the snap, Sutton remained patient before breaking to close on a short out route to the sideline, ultimately limiting Duvernay to no yards after the catch and placing the Ravens in a second and long situation.

Although Sutton did not jump off the tape in his limited Dime work, that is rarely a bad thing for a player who mainly plays on coverage downs. Look for Sutton to potentially play more extensively in a game against the Washington Football Team, who should pose much more of a threat in the passing game than the Covid-19 ridden Baltimore Ravens.

Jordan Dangerfield- A

Against the Ravens, Jordan Dangerfield continued to provide exemplary effort on special teams in his 18 snaps, recording a tackle on the kickoff unit and playing three defensive snaps in the Steelers run packages.

On the game’s second kickoff, Jordan Dangerfield, serving as the contain man, got downfield with urgency to set the edge before folding back inside and combining with Marcus Allen to lay a physical stick on Devin Duvernay.  On a punt midway through the second quarter, Dangerfield displayed ideal physicality, stepping up from his personal protector spot to pick up multiple Ravens rushers, keeping them away from Jordan Berry who was able get off a 56 yard boot, flipping the field in the process.

Midway through the fourth quarter, once again serving as the personal protector on the punt unit, Dangerfield stepped up to execute an effective cut block on a free rusher up the middle, once again allowing Berry to cleanly execute the punt, this one fair caught at Baltimore’s 14.

Jordan Dangerfield provided a physical presence to the Steelers special teams units all afternoon, finishing his kick out blocks on the return unit, stepping up with physicality as a personal protector, and finding a way to chip in a tackle on the kickoff unit, as he seems to do almost every week.  To be a Super Bowl contender, you need solid leadership on special teams, and Dangerfield has proved invaluable to a young Steelers special teams core full of new faces.

Sean Davis- B

In Week 12, Sean Davis continued to log extensive work on special teams, finishing the game with 17 snaps across various units, while also recording a tackle on one of his two defensive snaps for the second consecutive week.

On the first of his two defensive snaps, Davis subbed in for Steven Nelson, aligning at cornerback to boundary, where the Ravens had aligned in a nub tight end set.  At the snap, Davis jumped outside to assume his contain responsibilities before knifing back inside to lay a physical stick on Robert Griffin III, who had squirted free up the middle on a midline Quarterback Iso.

Sean Davis found a way to contribute defensively in limited snaps for the second week in a row, providing physicality from the cornerback position, perhaps warranting more snaps in that role moving forward.  On special teams, Davis showed good effort on the punt unit, but continued to struggle as a blocker on the kick return unit, certainly contributing to McCloud’s struggles on the day.

Justin Layne- B

Against Baltimore, Justin Layne continued to log extensive work on special teams, receiving 16 snaps across various units, while notably allowing his gunner to run free at-Ray Ray McCloud, ultimately resulting in a crucial turnover.

On the Ravens second punt of the afternoon, Layne failed to get hands on the Ravens jammer, allowing a speed release before being beaten with speed up the sideline, eventually allowing himself to be stacked, and leaving Davontae Harris free to stick McCloud at the catch point, jarring the ball free in the process. While McCloud ultimately needs to show far more awareness and signal for a fair catch in the future, Layne ultimately needs to finish the rep with better effort, potentially allowing him to use a hip by block to create space for the returner.

On the Ravens second punt of the third quarter, Layne corrected his earlier mistake, staying on top of the speedy Davontae Harris before eventually sealing him down inside to create a small lane for McCloud down the sideline, although it would only amount to a return of six yards in the end.  Late in the fourth quarter, on the Steelers final punt, Layne beat the jammer cleanly off the line with a smooth stutter and go release, stacking the jammer and displaying great effort to arrive in James Proche’s grill and force a fair catch inside the 20.

While Layne’s early mistake contributed to a turnover giving the Ravens their first score of the day, I actually thought he rebounded nicely, particularly with his work as a gunner.  With Steven Nelson’s status up in the air, I would expect Layne to garner extensive snaps against the Washington Football Team in sub package work in the case of a needed injury replacement.

James Pierre- B+

In Week 12, James Pierre continued to garner extensive work across various special teams units, logging 16 snaps while showing up in the box score with a tackle.

On the game’s opening kickoff, Pierre, serving in the safety role, did a good job of staying patient, folding inside, and using the sideline to cut off Devin Duvernay’s angle, shooting low to combine with Alex Highsmith for the stop.  On the Steelers first punt of the game, Pierre was able to beat the jammer off the line with a speed release, using the jammers blind spot to his advantage, and holding his proper leverage upon the fielding of the punt, forcing James Proche to cutback into the waiting arms of Ola Adeniyi for no gain.

On an early fourth quarter Ravens punt, Pierre failed to get hands on the Ravens gunner, ultimately allowing the gunner to race down the sideline and force McCloud, who otherwise would have had room to run, to reluctantly call for a fair catch.

While Pierre continues to struggle as a jammer on the punt return unit, his work as a gunner and on the kickoff unit have been solid week in week out.  Once again, Pierre continued to use his effort to get downfield well in coverage, holding his leverage with physicality, and making life easier on his teammates in their coverage lanes.

Overall: B+

The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 56% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 6% of their defensive snaps, totaling 62% of their defensive snaps spent in sub packages.  The return of Mike Hilton into a prominent role certainly allowed the Steelers to deploy their Nickel package with increased frequency against the Ravens, while a lack of Dime usage can likely be attributed to the absence of an effective passing attack from Baltimore.  While Edmunds miscue gave the Ravens life late in the game, the Steelers secondary, along with the defense as a whole, did it’s job, holding the Ravens to 7 points through 3 3/4 quarters of the game.

The Steelers game plan was far more reliant on zone coverages against the depleted Ravens offense, using a variety of Cover 3, Cover 6, Cover 4 Quarters, and Cover 2 zone schemes to bait the Ravens into taking short throws, before rallying to tackle the catch on possession downs.  Through week 12, the Steelers defense leads the NFL in points allowed at 188 (17.1 points per game), takeaways with 23, and sacks with 41(3.7 per game).  The only other defense’s to lead the league in all three statistics through week 12 in the modern era are the ‘85 Bears, 2000 Ravens, and 2017 Jaguars, not bad company to say the least.

Ultimately, the Steelers secondary did more than enough to earn a victory, even on a day where the offense, aided by eight crucial drops, produced its lowest scoring output of the season.  Moving into a matchup with the Washington Football Team, led by offensive weapons the likes of Antonio Gibson Jr. and Terry McLaurin, I would expect the Steelers to move back towards their Cover 1 blitz schemes on possession downs.  Against an immobile quarterback in Alex Smith, who for all his merits, presents a sitting duck in the pocket, the Steelers pass rush should be able to get home with frequency, although the loss of Bud Dupree should certainly begin to give us a more clear evaluation of the Steelers secondary.

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