In their Week 13 matchup against the Washington Football Team, who entered the game sporting a 4-7 record, but maintained the league’s second best pass defense with a ferocious front four, the Steelers allowed a 14 point lead to evaporate, suffering a 23-17 defeat, their first of the season. Entering the game missing key defensive pieces in Steven Nelson, Bud Dupree and Devin Bush, in game losses to Robert Spillane and Joe Haden proved costly down the stretch. Ultimately, the defense allowed Alex Smith to finish 31/46, with 296 yards, a touchdown and no picks, while allowing too many conversions downfield.
On a positive note, defense continued to perform admirably on possession downs, holding Washington’s offense to a putrid 4-17 on third downs and 0-1 in their singular fourth down attempt, allowing just a 22% conversion rate for the game. Nonetheless, in a game where Washington’s running game was held under 50 total yards, and Terry McLaurin was held to two receptions for fourteen yards, the Steelers patchwork secondary’s holes were exposed down the stretch. For the first time since Week 2 of the 2018 season, against Patrick Mahomes and company, the Steelers allowed a pair of receivers to reach 90 yards, with Logan Thomas finishing with 9 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown, while Cam Sims delivered 5 catches for 92 yards.
While the defense was less than flawless down the stretch, a five day turnaround combined with the simultaneous loss of key pieces in Spillane and Joe Haden caused plenty of in game shuffling. It may just be too much to ask for this defense to make stops with a Dime package consisting of Justin Layne, Cam Sutton, Mike Hilton, and Antoine Brooks Jr. Moreover, I don’t need to explain to anyone how the offense didn’t do them any favors, with the lack of anything resembling a serviceable run game rendering the unit largely ineffective in situational football.
Moving into a prime time contest with the AFC East leading Buffalo Bills, who feature a dark horse MVP candidate in Josh Allen, the status of Joe Haden and Steven Nelson remains a primary concern. The Steelers offense certainly seems to thrive off of an opportunistic defense, which will look to capitalize off of pressured throws by the young quarterback, regardless of his impressive 26-8 touchdown to interception ratio. Nonetheless, entering a tough stretch where the team will face three playoff teams over the next month, a prime time game in Buffalo presents the perfect opportunity for a statement game against the best passing offense that Pittsburgh will face this season.
Joe Haden- B+
In Week 13, Joe Haden logged 56 snaps before exiting in the fourth quarter with a reported concussion, finishing the game with 4 tackles and an impressive pass deflection in an overall steady performance. On the Steelers first defensive snap, Haden expanded too far with the #2 receiver to the flat, allowing Terry McLaurin to sit down in the vacated space of the Steelers pattern match zone. Although he allowed the underneath reception, Haden reacted quickly, rallying to tackle McLaurin after a gain of 12 in what would ultimately be his longest gain of the day.
Late in the second quarter, tasked with man coverage on Terry McLaurin in a two man “buzz” scheme, Haden did a great job of holding his outside leverage while defending a slot fade, forcing Alex Smith to loft the pass over Minkah Fitzptrick, who provided inside help underneath. At the catch point, Haden high pointed the football and played through McLaurin’s hands, ultimately causing an incompletion, and forcing Washington to punt yet again. On Washington’s final possession before half, once again operating in man coverage in a two man “buzz” scheme, Haden was beat across his face by Cam Sims on a five yard in, before missing a crucial tackle which allowed Sims to scamper for 30 yards, placing them in field goal range.
Midway through the third quarter, Haden, operating in a man coverage assignment on Cam Sims at the goal line, got caught with his eyes in the backfield, allowing Sims to create separation. Nonetheless, Haden remained calm with the ball in the air, played through Sims hands at the catch point, and aggressively raked the ball out to save a touchdown. Early in the fourth quarter, serving as the overhang defender to a nub tight end set, Haden inserted off the edge to stop Peyton Barber after a gain of two yards, suffering a reported concussion on the play. Haden would not return to the game, and his status remains in question entering a week 14 matchup with the Buffalo Bills.
Overall, Haden performed effectively, using his veteran instincts to help limit the impact of Terry McLaurin, who finished the game with just two catches. Moreover, Haden’s impact was felt in his loss, as the pass defense struggled mightily in his absence throughout the remainder of the fourth quarter. With Steven Nelson potentially set to return against the Buffalo Bills, Joe Haden’s concussion protocol should be something to monitor closely, as both corners will be needed to slow an elite Bills passing offense.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- A
Against the Washington Football Team, Minkah Fitzpatrick performed admirably in his 72 defensive snaps, recording three tackles and an impressive pass breakup, while playing a key role in limiting the talented Terry McLaurin. Early in the second quarter, operating out of a deep 1/2 zone in a Cover 2 man scheme, Minkah displayed elite pursuit and tackling, traveling across the field to stop Logan Thomas just shy of the sticks on third down. As the Steelers would make a crucial fourth down stop on the ensuing fourth down attempt, Minkah’s hustle and physicality would prove to pay dividends.
On a blown assignment in Cover 3 by Cam Sutton which allowed Logan Thomas to come wide open on a slot fade, Minkah came from his deep 1/3 post safety spot to lay a physical stick on the tight end, keeping him out of the end zone. Fitzpatrick not only showed elite recovery speed and physicality on the play, but also textbook tackling technique, squaring his body up to Thomas, and giving the tight end no opportunity to fall into the end zone.
Early in the fourth quarter, on a key third down attempt, Minkah, deployed as the robber in a Cover 1 robber scheme, came from a two high safety shell, sifting through traffic to break up a shallow crosser intended for Terry McLaurin. At the catch point, Minkah simultaneously secured the tackle while his shooting left hand in the receivers pocket, prying the ball free, and securing the pass breakup to force another punt.
Minkah continued to build on his elite 2020 campaign, making his impact felt both in coverage and as a tackler, while being deployed in a variety of roles. Notably, Minkah played a key role in slowing Terry McLaurin, consistently bracketing the talented receiver while deployed in underneath zones. Minkah is well on his way to another All-Pro season, and there may not be another safety in the league possessing a more complete skillset right now.
Terrell Edmunds- B+
Terrell Edmunds played extensively in Week 13, logging 67 snaps, and finishing the game with five tackles and a pass breakup in the teams 23-17 loss. Midway through the first quarter, with Washington facing a 2nd and long, Edmunds, deployed in a “seam-curl-flat” zone assignment out of a Cover 3 scheme, came up to make a physical stick on Logan Thomas. Edmunds gained depth at the snap, occupying the seam window before flying out of his break to stick the tight end, allowing no yards after the catch on the shallow crossing pattern.
Midway through the third quarter, working at the goal line, Edmunds came from the weakside to fill the A-gap, combining with T.J. Watt to stonewall J.D. McKissic for no gain. Late in the fourth quarter, operating out of Cover 1, Edmunds, serving as a cap defender for the blitzing Mike Hilton, stayed patient before triggering on an out route, and breaking up a pass intended for Cam Sims, forcing a field goal and giving the Steelers offense a chance to answer.
Edmunds rebounded from a highly criticized outing against Baltimore, performing well both as a run defender, as well as in pass coverage, while serving various roles in both man coverage and underneath zone assignments. One area where Edmunds could certainly improve moving forward would be his effectiveness as a blitzer, where he has struggled to make an impact thus far. Overall, outside of an over pursuit on a Cam Sims tunnel screen, where the entire defense over pursued, it’s tough to find much to complain about with Edmunds performance.
Mike Hilton- A
In Week 13, Mike Hilton announced his presence, filling the stat sheet with 6 tackles, a pass breakup, and two key tackles for a loss in his 57 defensive snaps, reminding fans of his importance to this defense. Midway through the first quarter, deployed in a man coverage assignment on Logan Thomas in a Cover 1 robber scheme, Hilton aligned in the A-gap before blanketing the tight end to the flat on a check and release, and securing a physical tackle at the line of scrimmage, and forcing another punt.
Midway through the second quarter, on a fourth and short attempt, Hilton knifed inside, beating a down block from Dontrell Inman to trip up J.D. McKissic, securing a tackle for a loss on the jet sweep. As Washington had shown the Logan Thomas Quarterback sneak on tape numerous times, the Steelers front had collapsed to protect against the sneak, while Hilton’s elite quickness and instincts single handedly blew up what was a smart play design from Ron Rivera and company.
Late in the second half, operating in a shallow underneath zone in a Cover 2 scheme, Hilton rallied the flat to bring down Logan Thomas, forcing Washington to punt from deep in their own territory. On the first play of the ensuing possession, Hilton, operating out of an underneath flat zone in a Cover 6 scheme, gained depth before rallying up and laying a physical hit on Steven Sims Jr., allowing no yards after the catch and holding the whip route to a gain of two yards. Two plays later, serving as the seam defender in a Tampa 2 scheme, Hilton went into trail technique up the seam before getting his head around, locating the football, and high pointing the ball for an impressive pass breakup, nearly corralling his second pick of the season.
Early in the third quarter, Hilton blew up a bubble screen, fighting through a block from tight end Logan Thomas to stay clean, keeping his right arm free to tackle Steven Sims Jr. two yards behind the line of scrimmage, and recording his second tackle for a loss on the day.
Mike Hilton re-established his presence as an impact performer on this defense, sharing the spotlight with Minkah as the best defenders in the secondary this week. Hilton not only tackled well in the run game, but helped shut down Washington’s short passing game, rallying up to make key stops on possession downs. Against Buffalo, look to see if Hilton can make an impact play as a blitzer, perhaps getting to Josh Allen off of a Nickel pressure.
Cameron Sutton- C+
Against the Washington Football Team, Cam Sutton played extensively, logging 72 snaps in place of the injured Steven Nelson, and ultimately finishing the game with three tackles and a nice pass breakup, yet struggling downfield at times. On Washington’s first third down attempt, while operating out of a flat zone assignment in a Cover 3 scheme, Sutton recorded a key tackle to stop Steven Sims Jr. short of the sticks, forcing an early punt. At the snap, Sutton gained depth, staying patient to occupy the intermediate throwing window as Alex Smith scrambled to his right, before rallying up late, breaking down, and shooting low to ensure the stop.
Midway through the first quarter, operating in man coverage in a Cover 1 Nickel blitz, Sutton displayed advanced technique, aligning in press pre snap before bluffing a press bail to bait Alex Smith into targeting Cam Sims on a curl route. At the snap, Sutton gained depth with a bail technique, eying Alex Smith, before breaking efficiently and getting his left hand across to break up the curl route, forcing another third and long.
Early in the third quarter, with Washington facing a 3rd and 14 backed up deep in their own territory, the Steelers called an inverted Cover 3, deploying Sutton as the deep ⅓ post safety, leaving themselves vulnerable to a tunnel screen which Cam Sims took for 31 yards. While the call caught the defense, which was rotating pre snap, off guard, the entire secondary was caught over pursuing the screen, none worse than Sutton, who drifted all the way to the sideline, leaving plenty of room for Sims to cut back, where he would gain more than enough yardage for a conversion.
Early in the third quarter, Cam Sutton blew his deep ⅓ assignment in a Cover 3 scheme, getting caught with his eyes in the backfield and allowing Logan Thomas to get open behind him on a slot fade. While Sutton showed great recovery, nearly getting back in time to make a play on the ball, it is imperative to keep everything in front of you as a deep 1/3 defender in a Cover 3 scheme.
On what would ultimately be the deciding play of the game, Cam Sutton allowed Cam Sims to get behind him on a slot fade, placing Washington in the red zone for a field goal that would put them ahead for good. Pre snap, Sutton aligned in press before once again deploying a press bail technique, before turning to locate Sims, losing balance, and allowing Sims to gain separation for a tough catch down the sideline. As the Steelers were operating in a Cover 1 scheme here, Sutton needed to maintain his outside leverage, just as Joe Haden had done earlier against the same route concept, making his choice to deploy a press bail out of the slot less than ideal.
While Sutton showed promise early, his two key miscues allowed Washington to capitalize, and eventually take the lead. While Sutton is certainly more athletic than the older Joe Haden, he appeared less comfortable than the veteran, sacrificing leverage and positioning downfield on multiple occasions, and allowing far too many downfield completions. While cornerback is certainly the hardest position to play on the defensive side of the ball, and all cornerbacks suffer rough games, Sutton will need to improve moving into a matchup with Buffalo, particularly if Joe Haden is unable to suit up.
Jordan Dangerfield- A
In Week 13, Jordan Dangerfield performed admirably in his 24 special teams snaps, failing to appear on the stat sheet, but using his physicality and aggression to frustrate young Washington special teamers into key penalties. Dangerfield also continued to serve as a substitution player in the Steelers goal line packages, recording three snaps defensive snaps in his goal line role.
On Pittsburgh’s second punt of the first quarter, Jordan Dangerfield got downfield with urgency from his personal protector spot, putting himself in position to make a tackle before absorbing a woefully obvious block in the back, gaining key yards back in the field position battle. On the ensuing possession, during a Washington punt, Dangerfield used physicality to provoke Khaleke Hudson into suplexing him to the ground, drawing a holding penalty, and once again netting key yards for Pittsburgh in the field position battle. Later, on the Steelers final punt of the half, Dangerfield had a nice rep from his personal protector spot, using a cut block to take on a free rusher off the left side, keeping Jordan Berry clean to get off the punt.
Midway through the third quarter, Dangerfield once again stepped up from his personal protector spot to stonewall a Washington rusher who had squirted free up the middle, keeping Berry clean for a punt that would only net 38 yards. Later, on a kick return midway through the fourth quarter, Dangerfield made a key kickout block, springing Ray Ray McCloud down the sideline for a 32 yard return.
Jordan Dangerfield continued to produce on special teams, performing well in a variety of roles across various units, while using his veteran savvy to draw two key penalties. Moving into a primetime matchup with Buffalo, a special teams play could certainly swing the outcome, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dangerfield involved.
Sean Davis- B+
Sean Davis played extensively on special teams against Washington, recording 24 snaps across various units, finishing the game with a tackle, and notably making a key recovery on a muffed punt by Ray Ray McCloud. Late in the first quarter, following a muffed punt on a fair catch attempt by McCloud, Davis reacted immediately, diving on the football between a crowd of four Washington players, and helping the Steelers avoid a catastrophic special teams disaster.
While Davis was quiet on special teams outside of his key fumble recovery, that play alone helped the Steelers avert an early disaster, and likely helped Ray-Ray McCloud retain his job. On the punt unit, Davis got down field well in coverage from his wing spot as Washington rarely applied too much pressure.
Antoine Brooks Jr. – Incomplete
Against the Washington Football Team, Antoine Brooks Jr. dressed for the first time in three weeks, logging one defensive snap following a devastating injury to Robert Spillane. With reports that Spillane is set to miss time, look for Antoine Brooks Jr. to combine with Marcus Allen in an attempt to replace Spillane’s sub package snaps until his eventual return.
While Brooks Jr. was not heavily featured in the Week 13 game plan, I would certainly expect that to change following the injury to Robert Spillane, who luckily should be slated to return by the playoffs. Avery Williamson and Vince Williams were exposed in coverage routinely, and Brooks Jr., along with Marcus Allen, should see his role increased significantly against a pass happy Bills offense.
Justin Layne- B+
In Week 13, Justin Layne played extensively, recording 28 defensive snaps in Dime packages, in addition to assuming a starting role following a late injury to Joe Haden. Layne was tested extensively, finishing the game with seven tackles and a 1/2 tackle for a loss in a game where he simultaneously logged 21 snaps in his usual special teams role. On the Steelers first punt, Justin Layne used his speed to blow straight past Washington’s jammer, ultimately forcing Steven Sims Jr. to signal for a fair catch at the 14 yard line, and netting a healthy 52 yards for Jordan Berry.
Just before half, deployed in a flat zone assignment in an inverted Cover 2, Justin Layne failed to maintain zone presence, drifting too far inside and allowing himself to be out-leveraged by a swing route to J.D. McKissic, allowing 11 yards and a first down as a result. The very next play, operating out of an identical coverage scheme, Layne executed perfectly, staying patient to take away Alex Smith’s first read, a 10 yard out, before rallying to corral McKissic on a swing pass, holding the back to a gain of just one yard.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Layne, serving as the contain man, used a stutter move to beat Washington’s blocker cleanly, forcing Danny Johnson to the sideline, breaking down, and tackling the returner at the 18 yard line. On the first kickoff of the fourth quarter, Layne got down the field, holding his contain to force a cutback from Danny Johnson before defeating a block, folding back inside, and making a physical stop at the Washington 30.
Early in the fourth quarter, working as a gunner, Layne beat his man cleanly off the line with an impressive speed release, stacking the jammer downfield and forcing Steven Sims Jr. to signal a fair catch just beyond midfield. Late in the fourth quarter, Layne aligned in press, using his long arms to stay connected to Cam Sims, slipping a block, and blowing up a tunnel screen in the backfield for an impressive tackle for a loss.
Overall, I came away impressed with Layne’s performance throughout the game, performing admirably on special teams, while answering the call when he was tested defensively once he settled in. While Layne certainly possesses the size and athletic traits to succeed in the NFL, he will need to settle down and stay more patient in zone assignments moving forward. With the Steelers likely missing at least one of their starting cornerbacks in week 14, expect Layne to continue receiving extended playing time in sub packages.
James Pierre- B
Against Washington, James Pierre continued to play extensively, logging 16 snaps across various special teams units, yet failing to make an appearance on the box score. Midway through the third quarter, Pierre had a nice rep working as a jammer on the punt return unit, staying in phase with the gunner downfield before throwing a nice block late to spring McCloud for an 11 yard return toward the sideline.
While Pierre had a quiet game in week 13, his effort is something that is never in question, and he certainly did not stand out in a negative fashion either. Entering a marquee week 14 matchup against the Bills, special teams play should prove crucial, making a continuation of Pierre’s solid play as important as ever.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 51% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 22%, totaling 73% of their defensive snaps spent in sub packages. The increase in sub package usage, particularly with the Dime package, can largely be attributed to their success in keeping Washington behind the chains for most of the game. One area where this defense has improved drastically over the second half of the season is their defense on possession downs, where they now rank 4th in the NFL, allowing conversions on only 36.09% of opposing offense’s attempts, a figure that drops to 25.58% over their last three games.
Overall, it’s hard to fault the secondary’s performance too heavily in week 13, as much of Alex Smith’s success came targeting linebackers following a devastating injury to Robert Spillane, who has been much better in coverage than he gets credit for. For instance, Logan Thomas’s late touchdown came on a miscommunication between Avery Williamson and Vince Williams, who were both frequently victimized by J.D. McKissic in the passing game. Thus, moving forward on possession downs, Marcus Allen and Antoine Brooks Jr. are likely to warrant increased snap counts, potentially serving as a counter to receiving backs and tight ends in obvious passing situations.
Moving into a primetime showdown with the streaking, 9-3 Buffalo Bills, led by Josh Allen and a group of talented pass catchers, the health of Joe Haden and Steven Nelson will certainly be a crucial component to this defense’s effectiveness. The Bills rank in the middle of the pack in pass protection, sitting at 14th in the NFL and allowing 2 sacks per game, a number which climbs to 3 per game in home contests, a figure which should bode well in protecting a potentially depleted secondary. Moreover, as we saw in the week 13 defeat, Roethlisberger and company are heavily reliant on their opportunistic defense, and the secondary forcing a turnover or two could certainly prove to be the difference in a matchup between two top AFC playoff contenders.