In their Week 17 matchup against the Cleveland Browns, who entered the game at 10-5, with an opportunity to clinch their first playoff berth since 2002, the Steelers backups ultimately fell just shy of a comeback victory, falling 24-22. Nonetheless, the loss secured a Sunday Night Wildcard Weekend rematch with the Browns next week, an intriguing matchup with the Steelers set to return Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward, Terrell Edmunds, Maurkice Pouncey, and potentially Robert Spillane. Moreover, even in the absence of key defensive starters, the Steelers pass rush, led by Alex Highsmith, pressured Baker Mayfield all afternoon, sacking the quarterback four times, while helping the defense hold him under 200 yards passing.
In a game where the Steelers defense notably deployed vanilla coverages, playing more spot drop zone, namely Cover 2, than I remember seeing at any point in the last two seasons, Baker Mayfield finished 17-27 passing with 196 yards, a touchdown, and a healthy 97.1 passer rating. Far more concerning, the defense, which was admittedly missing its two best players in the front seven, along with its best box defender in the secondary, allowed Nick Chubb to finish with 108 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries. Moreover, the Steelers defensive backups held the Browns to 6-12 on third downs, and 0-2 on their two fourth down attempts, providing optimism that they can confuse the Browns on possession downs when they keep them behind schedule. Thus, with the pending return of a slew of key defensive starters, it is easy to be optimistic that if the Steelers can hold the Browns dynamic run game in check, a task which is easier said than done. Moreover, their pass rush, aided with some more exotic coverage looks, should be able to frustrate Baker Mayfield in the rematch against a Browns offensive line that has allowed three sacks per game over their final three games.
As is often the case in the National Football League, a crucial turnover committed by Mason Rudolph, along with the Steelers failure to force the Browns into a turnover of their own, proved the difference in a game where the Browns struggled to move the football late. Thus, entering a playoff matchup, the Steelers success will likely be determined by their ability to force a key turnover or two, as well as the offense’s ability to play clean and control the tempo, a task which should be aided by Roethlisberger’s return. One interesting side plot, if the Steelers are able to find a hat for Josh Dobbs in the postseason, Tomlin hinted that he may have a role in short yardage, third down, and red zone situations, an idea that seems intriguing on the surface after a game in which he averaged 10 yards per carry.
Steven Nelson- B+
In the season finale, Steven Nelson played 43 defensive snaps, finishing the game with three tackles and a pass breakup, yet being targeted with more frequency than he had in previous weeks. Late in the first quarter, operating out of a Cover 1 Nickel blitz, Nelson aligned in off coverage, displaying patience in his backpedal before flying out of his break to force Donovan Peoples-Jones out of bounds, and securing a physical pass breakup.
When deployed in man coverage, Nelson was rarely targeted throughout the game, although Mayfield did target the veteran with some level of success in Tampa 2 assignments. Nonetheless, the Steelers deployed far more Tampa 2 than they had at any point this season in Week 17, and I would expect their staple Cover 1 scheme to be featured in Pittsburgh on Wildcard Weekend. Moreover, in the absence of Joe Haden, Nelson will be crucial in the Steelers plan to slow down the talented Jarvis Landry.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- B+
In Week 17, Minkah Fitzpatrick curiously played all 62 defensive snaps, recording 5 tackles and an impressive pass breakup in the game, even while being limited in the passing game by a purposely vanilla game plan. Early in the first quarter, Minkah came from his post safety alignment to track down Nick Chubb, who had exploded into the second level untouched, yet whiffed on a tackle attempt, ultimately allowing Chubb to scamper for a 47 yard touchdown. Although Minkah’s tackling has been solid all season long, similar to the Marquise Brown touchdown from Week 12, the All-pro safety must do a better job of tracking runners’ back hips in pursuit, as lack of pursuit discipline can lead to ugly cutback reps like this one.
Early in the second quarter, while operating as the post safety in a Cover 1 blitz scheme, Minkah read Baker’s eyes, immediately racing to the sideline to track down Rashard Higgins, who had beaten Justin Layne over the top. Later in the drive, with the Browns in a goal to go situation, Minkah came from his post safety alignment to track down a pass intended for David Njoku, breaking it up with his left hand in the corner of the end zone.
Just two plays later, on third and goal, Minkah blanketed David Njoku on an out and up double move up the seam, re-routing the tight end out of the end zone, forcing Baker to throw his target out of bounds, and holding the Browns to a field goal. Late in the fourth quarter, operating as a deep ½ safety, Minkah stepped up, fighting through a crack block from Jarvis Landry to halt Kareem Hunt after a five yard gain, forcing a third down attempt.
Overall, Minkah performed well in Week 17 outside of an ugly missed tackle early in the game, tackling well in the run game, and recording an impressive pass breakup in the red zone. Nonetheless, the Steelers heavy reliance on Tampa 2 sets certainly limited Minkah’s impact, as their traditional Cover 1 scheme allows him much more freedom to be a playmaker in the middle of the field. Moving into Wildcard Weekend, the Steelers defense will likely need to force a turnover or two, and Minkah could certainly secure a timely interception in a Cover 1 robber set.
Mike Hilton- B
Against the Browns, Mike Hilton continued to play extensively in sub packages, logging 23 snaps, yet remaining relatively quiet in the game, finishing with a tackle to his credit. Late in the second quarter, in a third and long situation, Hilton aligned at linebacker depth, bluffing a blitz, before flowing down the line to track down Kareem Hunt from the weak side, displaying great effort and pursuit to force a Cleveland punt as halftime approached.
Although Hilton saw his snaps decrease from recent weeks, much of that can be attributed to the Steelers looking to give him rest, while simultaneously playing more base against the run heavy Cleveland offense. Nonetheless, Hilton provided solid reps in his limited snap count, providing adequate run defense, and performing well in coverage against Jarvis Landry on numerous occasions. With T.J. Watt set to return, Mike Hilton could see more success as a blitzer in the upcoming Wildcard Weekend rematch.
Cameron Sutton- B+
Against Cleveland, Cameron Sutton led all cornerbacks with 54 defensive snaps filling in for Joe Haden, finishing the game with 2 tackles, and providing solid coverage throughout. Early in the first quarter, serving as the overhang defender to a nub tight end set, Sutton stepped up to fill the C-gap, yet came in slightly out of control and got juked out of his shoes by Chubb, who would scamper 47 yards for a score.
While Sutton correctly attacked Chubb with proper outside leverage on the attempt, he needed to take a physical shot at the back here, as that would at least force the runner to stop his feet and face the pursuit, even in the event of a missed tackle. Early in the third quarter, operating in a flat zone assignment to the boundary of a Cover 6 scheme, Sutton re-routed Nick Chubb with a physical two hand jam before zone turning, squeezing the back to the sideline, and blanketing the back downfield as Mayfield’s pass sailed out of bounds. As Baker is particularly aggressive throwing the hole shot down the sideline, gaining proper depth as a flat corner will continue to be imperative for the Steelers in the upcoming rematch.
Merely one play later, on a crucial third down, operating out of a Cover 2 zone assignment, Sutton expanded with the #1 receiver before breaking on a Jarvis Landry out route, sticking the receiver with physicality, and nearly preventing a first down conversion.
Overall, Sutton had himself a very solid game, particularly on the outside where he looked to be the Steelers most comfortable cornerback in their Tampa 2 scheme. Outside of an ugly missed tackle early, Sutton tackled well, and performed generally well in coverage throughout the game. His play will be crucial on Wildcard weekend, as he will likely play all defensive snaps alongside Steven Nelson in a game where limiting big plays and forcing timely turnovers will prove crucial.
Jordan Dangerfield- B+
In Week 17, Jordan Dangerfield once again finished as the team leader with 18 special teams snaps, simultaneously logging one defensive snap, providing solid work across various special teams units, yet failing to appear on the stat sheet. On the Steelers first punt of the game, Dangerfield stepped up from his personal protector spot to pick up a twisting rusher, taking two Browns to the ground on his block, and allowing Jordan Berry to complete his punt operation cleanly in the face of the block attempt.
Nothing out of the ordinary in this one for Dangerfield, as he continued to perform well across various special teams units, particularly in his work as the personal protector, where he helped stabilize the unit against a Browns team which sent pressure with frequency. Moving into the postseason, the field position battle will prove ever important in aiding an inconsistent Steelers offense in their quest to score points, particularly early in games.
Sean Davis- B+
Against the Browns, Sean Davis logged 43 defensive snaps while filling in for the injured Terrell Edmunds, impressing in a game where he finished with six tackles and a physical pass breakup, simultaneously logging 12 special teams snaps. Early in the first quarter, deployed as the cap defender in a Cover 1 Nickel blitz scheme, Sean Davis allowed Austin Hooper to out-leverage him on a short out route, tackling the tight end after a ten yard gain that moved the chains. An area where Edmunds has been outstanding this year, a cap defender has to be far more aggressive in closing space pre-snap than Davis was here, understanding that oftentimes the receiver which they are picking up in man coverage will be the quarterback’s “hot read”.
Midway through the first quarter, aligned at linebacker depth, Davis inserted through the C-gap before flattening down the line and shooting low to cut down Kareem Hunt for no gain. Just before halftime, operating as the deep 1/2 safety in a Cover 2 zone scheme, Davis stayed patient before flying out of his break to lay a physical stick on Donovan Peoples-Jones, jarring the ball free in the process.
In his first extensive defensive action of the season, Sean Davis acquitted himself well, displaying solid athleticism and ball skills from ½ field safety alignments. While he is far less of an ideal fit for the Steelers traditional scheme, which traditionally asks Terrell Edmunds to play plenty of man coverage, he has certainly shown that he has a place in this league. Moving forward, Davis will continue to serve in his traditional special teams role as the Steelers enter postseason play.
Justin Layne- C+
Against Cleveland, Justin Layne logged 16 defensive snaps and 13 special teams snaps, struggling defensively, yet acquitted himself well on special teams in a game that he finished with four tackles. On the Steelers first punt of the afternoon, Layne utilized an impressive inside speed release to beat the Browns jammer, fighting through contact to gain separation and force an early fair catch, pinning the Browns inside their own 20 yard line.
On the Steelers next punt, Layne utilized an impressive single stick release to gain separation inside, beating his man with speed, and sticking Donovan Peoples-Jones at the 10 yard line for no gain, securing a massive 56 yard net for Jordan Berry in the process. Early in the second quarter, working in a Cover 1 Nickel blitz scheme, Layne aligned in press, displaying good footwork and hand usage off the line before being fooled by a stutter and go double move. On the rep, Layne displayed atrocious eye discipline, turning to locate the football and never getting his eyes back to locate the receiver as the ball sailed over his head for a 42 yard gain on what was arguably the worst rep I’ve seen from a Steelers cornerback all season.
On the final play of the third quarter, operating out of a 2 man under scheme, Layne was caught with his eyes in the backfield again, inexplicably allowing his man to run wide open over the middle of the field for a crushing third down conversion. The drive would ultimately be Layne’s last reps of the game, as the Steelers opted to finish the game out with Cam Sutton and James Pierre on a day where Layne consistently appeared lost. On the ensuing kickoff, Layne, serving as the contain man, got down the field before folding back inside, and tracking down D’Ernest Johnson from behind shy of the 30 yard line.
Overall, many of the issues that have plagued Layne this season persisted in Week 17, as his issues with eye discipline make him virtually unplayable in key situations, never more apparent than two plays where he wasn’t within 10 yards of his assignment. Nonetheless, Layne was the best special teamer in the secondary on the day, which helps put a positive spin on what was a rough defensive outing for him. As James Pierre looked far more poised and comfortable in his snaps, it will be very interesting to see if Layne keeps his Dime role in a Wildcard Weekend matchup which the Steelers enter without the contributions of Joe Haden.
James Pierre- A-
In Week 17, James Pierre received 12 special teams snaps in his usual role, while simultaneously logging 18 defensive snaps in relief of Steven Nelson, finishing the game with a tackle to his credit. On a late first quarter Cleveland punt, Pierre allowed himself to be beat cleanly off the line by a nice single stick release, eventually allowing the Browns gunner to force Ray Ray McCloud to signal fair catch at the 10 yard line.
Early in the second quarter, Pierre utilized a beautiful inside speed release to create separation, before beating his man downfield with speed, eventually combining with Justin Layne to stop Donovan Peoples-Jones after a four yard return.
Pierre acquitted himself very well in his first extensive defensive work of the season, appearing fluid, confident, and poised while serving on the boundary. Although Justin Layne has received sub package reps ahead of Pierre all season, his performance could open the door for Pierre to receive some limited Dime snaps in the Wildcard Weekend matchup in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, Pierre will continue to serve in his traditional special teams role regardless, and has put enough on tape to warrant his return for the 2021 season.
Antoine Brooks Jr. – B
In the season finale, Antoine Brooks Jr. got a hat for the third time all season, logging five special teams snaps, yet failing to make an appearance on the stat sheet.
Although Brooks Jr. failed to receive any defensive snaps, as has been the case since Week 10, even receiving a hat is a minor victory for him. Nonetheless, Brooks Jr. failed to stand out in his limited special teams snaps, though neither in a positive or negative fashion. Although it appears extremely unlikely, the team deployed Brooks Jr. as their Dime defender in Week 10, and while he was filling in for the injured Mike Hilton, as opposed to the current vacancy at Joe Haden’s boundary position, Justin Layne’s play today makes him virtually unplayable in a playoff environment.
The Steelers deployed their Nickel package on 15% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 8% of their defensive snaps, totaling a season low 23% of their defensive snaps spent in sub-packages. Nonetheless, much of this can be attributed to the absences of Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds, as well as a concerted effort by the Browns to stay in 12 and 13 personnel for much of the game. The anticipated return of Terrell Edmunds, along with Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Robert Spillane for the upcoming Wildcard Weekend matchup, should allow the Steelers to revert back to their pressure heavy, Cover 1 identity Sunday Night in Pittsburgh.
If the Browns are able to stay ahead of the chains in Wildcard Weekend as they did in Week 17, I fully expect them to continue to spread the Steelers out with heavy personnel in an attempt to keep the Steelers in base defense, thus forcing them to deploy Cover 2 zones. All that being said, the return of T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward up front should help the Steelers in their attempt to keep Cleveland behind the chains, although containing their elite rushing attack will take flawless gap discipline up front. Moreover, if the Steelers are able to keep the Browns behind the chains, placing Baker in obvious passing situations on possession downs, Tomlin and company will be able to utilize their full menu of pressure packages and coverage schemes, potentially forcing Baker into a timely turnover or two.
The interesting side plot which I briefly touched upon earlier, is whether James Pierre showed enough to the coaching staff to move into the Dime role for Wildcard Weekend, as Justin Layne’s play on defense was that of a complete liability. Of people on the roster, one would think Pierre is the logical solution to fill in limited sub-package work in Haden’s absence, particularly after he performed admirably in 18 snaps, in which he was targeted zero times and appeared comfortable in press coverage. Regardless, the Steelers secondary is faced with the tough task of forcing this Browns offense into timely turnovers, a unit that is top five in protecting the football, surrendering just one turnover per game on average. Nonetheless, the return of a rested T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward to a front which already gave the Browns fits courtesy of Alex Highsmith and Stephon Tuitt, should only improve the defense, which recorded four sacks against the Browns offense last week. Ultimately, if the Steelers offense can start quicker than it has in recent weeks, their defense should be able to go into attack mode against Cleveland in obvious passing situations, aiming to create splash plays and help lead Pittsburgh to it’s first playoff victory since the 2016 season.