In their Wildcard Weekend loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers offense turned the football over three times in the first quarter, helping Cleveland jump out to a 28-0 first quarter lead, which ultimately put the game out of reach early. In total, the Steelers defense struggled mightily, allowing 41 points and 390 yards after not allowing an opposing team to reach the 30 point mark since Week 1 of the 2019 season. In a tutorial on how to lose the undermanned Browns team, five total offensive turnovers helped allow the Browns to run 52.3%(34 of 65) of their offensive plays in Steelers territory per our own Alex Kozora.
Ultimately, the secondary allowed Baker Mayfield to finish with an efficient 21-34 stat line, including 263 passing yards, 3 touchdowns and no turnovers in his first postseason action, although the complete disappearance of the league’s most consistent pass rush did them no favors. In an utterly unacceptable performance, the Steelers defense played one good quarter of football, shutting the Browns out as the Steelers closed the gap in the third quarter, before allowing a 6-play touchdown drive to begin the fourth quarter, one which closed the door on any outside chance of a comeback.
While the Steelers held the Browns to a 6-14 showing on third downs, they allowed plenty of key conversions throughout the game, including down the stretch when Jarvis Landry abused Robert Spillane in coverage. As the team is set to lose key pieces to free agency on both sides of the football, one could speculate that the organization may sit down with Ben, and have an honest conversation of whether he intends to be part of an offensive rebuild in what could potentially be his final year. Moreover, it has become clear that this year’s draft will center around rebuilding the offense up front, with potential early round picks targeting a franchise tackle, a versatile tight end who can block, and the much coveted bell cow running back. Nonetheless, while the end of the season was ugly, and likely closed the door on Ben’s Super Bowl window, fans need to appreciate the stability that his Hall of Fame career has brought to this organization, with 13 playoff wins and two Super Bowl titles to his name, as there’s no telling when that next franchise caliber quarterback finds his way to Pittsburgh, opening a new chapter of Super Bowl contention.
Steven Nelson- B
In their Wildcard Weekend loss to the Cleveland Browns, Steven Nelson played all 67 defensive snaps, performing adequately on the outside, and finishing the game with 6 tackles while holding the Browns receivers in check downfield. Late in the first quarter, on a crucial third and five, with the Steelers trailing by 14, Nelson, operating in a man coverage assignment in a Cover 1 robber scheme, aligned in press pre snap before backing off due to motion, pedaling to match Rashard Higgins, and breaking in phase with the receiver, but ultimately allowing the contested reception.
Late in the first half, deployed in a flat zone assignment in a Cover 2 scheme, Nelson re-routed the boundary receiver before coming up and breaking down to force Nick Chubb out of bounds on a swing pass, limiting the catch to a gain of one yard. Late in the third quarter, operating in a man coverage assignment on Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nelson peddled before breaking on an out route as the receiver lost his footing, hesitating briefly before dropping an interception. Although it was not an elementary pick, if Nelson could have corralled the interception, he would have had a perfect opportunity for a pick six, and moreover, one which would have swung momentum and closed the gap to a one score game.
On the ensuing possession, Nelson, aligned in press man coverage on Peoples-Jones, utilized a mirror press to match the receiver off the line before allowing separation at the top of a curl route, and tackling the catch immediately after an eight yard gain. On the Browns final offensive possession, aligned as the overhang defender to a nub tight end set, Nelson inserted off the edge into the backfield, combining with Tyson Alualu to stop Nick Chubb after a short two yard gain.
Overall, Nelson performed adequately in the team’s Wildcard Weekend matchup, allowing no separation downfield throughout the game, while tackling the catch well to limit additional yards. Nonetheless, his failure to secure a game changing interception will certainly leave a bad taste in his mouth heading into the 2021 campaign. In total, Nelson finished the season with 15 games started, 48 tackles, two tackles for a loss, two interceptions, and nine pass breakups, improving as the season progressed, and rounding into his 2019 form by the time playoffs had rolled around. With Joe Haden’s future status on this team uncertain, Nelson could enter the 2021 season as the team’s number one cornerback, potentially playing opposite Cam Sutton in base personnel.
Minkah Fitzpatrick- B
Against Cleveland, Minkah Fitzpatrick played all 67 defensive snaps, finishing the game with six tackles, yet failing to make any plays on the football in a game where the Steelers desperately needed a turnover. Midway through the second quarter, with the Browns facing a third and long situation, Minkah, deployed as the post safety, stepped up to tackle Kareem Hunt, who had burst into the second level untouched, after a gain of 13, forcing a Browns punt.
Just before halftime, operating out of a two man buzz concept, Minkah buzzed down to take away the intermediate middle of the field before coming from across the field to track down Baker Mayfield on a scramble, ultimately corralling the quarterback just as he passed the sticks. Late in the first half, Minkah came from his post safety alignment to stick Kareem Hunt, shooting low to cut down the back after a gain of 12 yards on a run where he exploded into the second level untouched.
Early in the third quarter, Minkah aligned near the line of scrimmage, coming as a blitzer on a six man pressure scheme, ultimately fighting through Kareem Hunt’s blitz pickup to pressure Baker Mayfield’s throw, helping the defense secure a crucial third down stop.
On Nick Chubb’s screen pass touchdown which put the game out of reach, Minkah appeared complacent, assuming that Hilton would corral Chubb, and ultimately failing to take a proper pursuit angle as a result. On the ensuing possession, Minkah displayed great effort, coming from his post safety slot to tackle Austin Hooper, who had come wide open on a seven route, preventing a touchdown in the process.
Although Minkah had a quiet game against Cleveland, as is often the case, he was rarely targeted in coverage throughout the game, with the Browns often attacking isolated man coverage matchups away from Minkah. Overall, in his second season with the team, Minkah was named first team All-pro for a second season in a row, posting a stat line of 79 tackles, a tackle for a loss, four interceptions, a return touchdown, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and 11 pass breakups. Entering 2021 and beyond, Minkah Fitzpatrick, along with T.J. Watt and Devin Bush, will serve as a building block to the Steelers defense, serving as the key to their Cover 1 centric scheme. While Minkah was moved around more in the 2020 campaign, deployed as the robber defender with increased frequency, I would love to see Minkah deployed as a blitzer more in the 2021 season, particularly as it is an area he seems to flourish in, compounded with the fact that the team will lose its best secondary level blitzer in Mike Hilton.
Terrell Edmunds- B-
In Wildcard Weekend, Terrell Edmunds struggled with tackling at times, but produced a solid effort with six tackles, a pass deflection, and a tackle for a loss in the upset loss. Early in the first quarter, deployed as the post safety in a Cover 1 hole scheme on the Browns first third down attempt, Terrell Edmunds took an undisciplined angle, ultimately allowing Jarvis Landry to cross his face for a 40 yard touchdown.
Late in the first half, on a crucial third and six, Edmunds, operating in a two man buzz scheme, gained depth before flying up to blast a scrambling Baker Mayfield at the sticks, yet ultimately allowing the first down. On the rep, Edmunds failed to notice Baker leaving the pocket early enough to make the stop, compounded by the fact that he failed to properly square his shoulders to Mayfield, allowing him to fall forward out of bounds for the back breaking conversion.
Late in the third quarter, serving as the overhang defender, Edmunds displayed great physicality, blowing Austin Hooper back with low pad level, before disengaging, and shooting low to cut down Nick Chubb after a short, two yard gain. Late in the fourth quarter, with the game out of reach, Edmunds made a tackle, followed by a pass breakup in the red zone to force a field goal attempt. Although the game was well out of reach, it was nice to see Edmunds continue to succeed in two areas where he has improved mightily, run defense and man coverage.
Against Cleveland, Terrell Edmunds performed adequately both in run defense as well as man coverage, yet his efforts were tainted by an atrocious early missed tackle, one which allowed Jarvis Landry to scamper into the end zone, establishing an early 14-0 lead. On the season, Edmunds showed improvements both as a run defender, as well as in the coverage facet of his game, finishing the 2020 campaign with 68 tackles, a tackle for a loss, two picks, and eight pass deflections, double the figure that he had posted in either of his first two seasons. Moving into a pivotal fourth season, Edmunds will continue to serve as the bookend of a talented safety tandem alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick, while offseason improvements to his blitzing technique, as well as work as the single high safety could help him continue to build his game.
Mike Hilton- C
In what was likely his last game as a Pittsburgh Steeler, Mike Hilton played 44 defensive snaps in sub-package work, finishing the game with two tackles, yet struggling at times against Jarvis Landry in coverage. On the Browns first third down attempt, Hilton, deployed in a man coverage assignment on Jarvis Landry in a Cover 1 hole scheme, maintained proper outside leverage, but simultaneously failed to get hands on the receiver, stepping in the bucket and ultimately allowing Landry to create plenty of separation on the deep angle route.
Early in the third quarter, operating out of a Cover 1 five man pressure scheme, Hilton, aligned in the slot against Rashard Higgins, opened his hips to match a diamond release, ultimately allowing the receiver to cross his face on a slant for a 16 yard gain. Early in the fourth quarter, on the Nick Chubb screen pass which put the game out of reach, Mike Hilton came off his receiver and shot low at Chubb, ultimately whiffing and allowing the back to rumble 40 yards for a backbreaking touchdown.
In what was most likely his last game in Pittsburgh, Mike Hilton had a quiet game by his standards, failing to impact the game as a blitzer, and more often than not, struggling against the talented Jarvis Landry in the slot. In his final season in Pittsburgh, Hilton played 12 games, finishing with 51 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, three sacks, three interceptions, and seven pass deflections in what was arguably his most impressive and productive season in Pittsburgh to date. Moving into the 2021 draft, slot cornerback remains an underrated need for the Steelers, as while Cam Sutton has the ability to both kick inside and play on the boundary, the Steelers will need to replace Hilton’s run defense capabilities at the position with a mid round pick.
Cameron Sutton- B+
In a Wildcard Weekend defeat, Cam Sutton played all 67 defensive snaps while filling in for Joe Haden, a potential preview of his role for next season, finishing the game with two tackles and a pass breakup while performing adequately throughout. Midway through the third quarter, operating in a Cover 1, 7-man pressure scheme, Sutton matched Jarvis Landry on a slant route, securing a clutch third down pass breakup, and helping the Steelers narrow the deficit. On the rep, Sutton utilized a mirror press, before using a two hand jam to disrupt Landry at the top of the route, getting to Landry’s upfield shoulder, and getting his left hand across to secure the breakup.
Early in the fourth quarter, operating out of a Cover 1 pressure scheme, Sutton allowed separation on a bang eight post route, playing with proper outside leverage, yet allowing the 14 yard reception on a perfect call against the coverage.
Overall, Sutton was the Steelers best cornerback in their Wildcard Weekend contest, providing adequate coverage downfield throughout the game, securing a particularly impressive third down pass breakup on Jarvis Landry with a heavy blitz on. With Haden’s status uncertain moving into 2021, it is reasonable to assume that Cam Sutton could move into a full time starting cornerback role in 2021, particularly coming off a career year where he recorded 30 tackles, a tackle for a loss, a sack, a fumble recovery, three forced fumbles, a pick, and eight pass deflections. Personally, I would make resigning Sutton the top offseason priority for the Steelers, with the ability to deploy him like Chris Harris Jr. was used in Denver, with Sutton serving as a boundary cornerback in base, with the ability to kick inside in Nickel and Dime sets.
Jordan Dangerfield- B
Against Cleveland, Jordan Dangerfield finished off a nice season as the team’s special teams captain, finishing the game without an appearance on the stat sheet, but performing adequately, particularly on the punt unit.
Overall, Dangerfield failed to stand out in a positive or negative fashion on the Wildcard Weekend film review, which speaks more than anything to his steady veteran play as a special teamer. Following a season where he helped stabilize a young special teams core, dealing with many veteran departures, the Steelers should seek to resign Dangerfield to a veteran minimum type deal, as his veteran presence on special teams is invaluable, while he can still provide depth in the secondary.
Sean Davis- D
Against the Browns, Sean Davis finished an underwhelming season with 13 special teams snaps across various units, once again failing to make an appearance on the stat sheet, as his become a weekly occurrence for him in the 2020 season. On the opening kickoff, Sean Davis got blown up at the point of attack by D’Ernest Johnson, stopping his feet at contact, and ultimately allowing the back to shed him and halt Ray Ray McCloud short of the 25 yard line.
On a late second quarter kickoff, Davis once again failed to block D’Ernest Johnson, displaying a lack of physicality at the point of attack, ultimately allowing the back to slip off his block and tackle McCloud at the Pittsburgh 27 yard line. On the Steelers final kick return, Davis once again displayed lackluster effort, allowing his man, once again D’Ernest Johnson, to once again slip off his block for his third special teams tackle of the night, not ideal for a journeyman fighting for his spot in the league.
Overall, Davis produced potentially the worst performance of his first season back in Pittsburgh in their Wildcard Weekend matchup, allowing his man to make the tackle on the kick return unit on three separate occasions, all while displaying a lack of effort and physicality. Moreover, Davis’ work as a wing on the punt unit was suspect for much of the year, with him often opting for weak cut block attempts which limited his ability to get downfield in coverage. While bringing Davis to camp is certainly a possibility for 2021, I would opt for replacing his roster spot with a late round draft pick or undrafted free agent who can provide more to the team’s special teams units.
Justin Layne- B-
In their Wildcard Weekend defeat, Justin Layne finished the season on a tough note, playing 15 special teams snaps but conceding his Dime snaps to James Pierre, an undrafted rookie free agent who thoroughly outplayed Layne.
In Layne’s final game of his sophomore campaign, he performed adequately in his traditional special teams role, but was demoted out of his Dime package role in favor of undrafted rookie free agent James Pierre. In total, Layne finished his sophomore campaign with 22 tackles, yet did not record any ball production in extensive stints of sub package work, appearing lost at times in zone coverage assignments. Entering the 2021 training camp, Layne’s roster spot is certainly in jeopardy if not for significant offseason improvements, as he has yet to show any ability to be an NFL caliber defensive back, even in limited sub package work.
James Pierre- A
Against Cleveland, James Pierre ended the season on a high note, recording 8 defensive snaps in sub-package work in addition to his usual special teams work, ultimately finishing the game with two tackles and an impressive pass breakup. On the Steelers first punt, Pierre beat his man off the line with an explosive inside speed release, using speed and effort to stack the jammer downfield before flattening down the line to halt Donovan Peoples-Jones after an eight yard return.
Early in the second quarter, deployed as a deep 1/3 defender in a Cover 3 scheme, Pierre utilized a shuffle technique before breaking on an out and up double move by Rashard Higgins, saving himself with a fluid speed turn and playing through the receivers hands to secure an impressive pass breakup. While Pierre must learn to understand that an out route is not his responsibility as a deep ⅓ defender, the hip fluidity and poise displayed by Pierre with the ball in the air are encouraging traits for a young undrafted cornerback nonetheless.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Pierre, serving as the contain man on the kickoff unit, failed to set a hard edge, initially being washed out of bounds by the kick out block before shedding the block, and turning on the jets to track down D’Ernest Johnson at the 36 yard line.
After an impressive rookie campaign as a special teamer, Pierre finished the 2020 season with his best game to date, contributing admirably in a Dime package role, and subsequently setting himself up for an increased role in 2021. With Joe Haden’s status up in the air, Pierre could potentially be in line for reps as a boundary cornerback in sub packages next season, serving as a boundary cornerback in Nickel and Dime sets with Cam Sutton moving inside. While Pierre’s defensive tape is limited, he has displayed fluid hips, impressive patience, and solid ball skills, all assets which make him an interesting piece to the puzzle for Kevin Colbert and company entering the offseason.
The Steelers defense deployed their Nickel package on 31% of their defensive snaps and their Dime package on 15%, totaling 46% of their total defensive snaps spent in sub packages. While this number is particularly low for their 2020 season average, the Browns ability to establish an early lead and stay ahead of the chains throughout the game certainly factored into the lower figure. Overall, while the Steelers secondary was certainly not the primary reason they lost in spectacular fashion to the Browns, their inability to create a turnover certainly didn’t help, as the team had only won a single game all season when they failed to create a turnover.
With the 2021 season on the horizon, the secondary is sure to look different with the potential departures of Joe Haden and Mike Hilton, two stalwarts of the unit over the past half decade. Nonetheless, the return of their safety tandem allows the defense to continue their single high centric identity, with the potential resigning of Cam Sutton allowing the team to have flexibility in their sub package rotations at the cornerback position. Moreover, with the loss of Bud Dupree in the front seven certain to hinder the pass rush on some level, the secondary will need to build on their performance in the 2020 season, and particularly look to limit explosive plays in the passing game moving forward.
Overwhelmingly apparent are the steps the team will need to take toward an offensive rebuild in the 2021 offseason, using free agent re-signings and the 2021 draft to rebuild the offensive line, tight end position, and address the lack of a playmaker in the backfield. Thus, while many fans are clamoring for the drafting of a quarterback early in the 2020 draft, a mid round selection the likes of Jamie Newman certainly seems like the more likely possibility, although even that would limit the teams ability to address a myriad of holes on the offensive side of the ball, as well as more subtle needs at outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and cornerback moving forward. All that being said, fans need to accept that Ben Roethlisberger will likely return in 2021, with one last chance to make a run with an improved offensive foundation, as well as a potentially revamped offensive system, but the future of the franchise at quarterback likely will not join the roster until the 2022 draft. While this column is finished for the season, be on the lookout for more defensive back centered content, including draft profiles, and scheme related breakdowns as the offseason progresses!