The Steelers’ DB room is dealing with some roster turnover from 2020 to 2021. Steven Nelson (he had a very solid couple of seasons for the Steelers), outside starter opposite Joe Haden, is gone. As is Mike Hilton, who was a Swiss Army knife in the slot (he was one of the best all-around NFL slot defenders in Pittsburgh’s scheme). Cam Sutton (and the other new starters that are TBD – James Pierre will have a prominent role on the outside in nickel and dime) will have to step up in a big way this upcoming season and that starts with a major matchup in Week 1 against one of the top wide receivers in the NFL, Stefon Diggs, as well as his rocket-armed quarterback, Josh Allen. Against the Steelers last year, Stefon Diggs had ample room to operate, finishing the game with 10 catches on 14 targets to the tune of 130 yards and a touchdown. Starter Joe Haden did not play due to injury, leaving outside duties to Steven Nelson and Cam Sutton, who found themselves struggling to keep up with Diggs.
If the Steelers are to start their 2021 season with a victory against a top AFC opponent, they’ll need to limit Stefon Diggs’ production (and the entire Bills passing attack for that matter). Containing the big play is the main way to do so. Whether that’s wrapping up immediately after the catch to prevent/limit RAC opportunities, keeping Diggs in front in order to avoid giving Josh Allen a window on the deep ball, or preventing miscommunications and in turn broken coverages, every Steelers DB needs to come ready to play in Week 1 to successfully accomplish their job. As I’ll discuss, consistent pressure from the pass rush would also help.
Now, let’s get into the tape from the Steelers’ 2020 Week 14 game against Buffalo.
*Apologies for the lack of All-22 film. NFL Game Pass All-22 was not accessible when I worked on this article.*
When Josh Allen recently suited up for Week 3 of the 2021 preseason, the Bills attacked the Packers with a pass-heavy approach on his drives. While it was just preseason action, Allen looked sharp and the Bills displayed a similar mentality to the one they had last year. They passed early and often, utilizing spread formations and empty backfields to get the job done. Allen finished the day 20/26 for 194 yards, 2 touchdowns, and a 122.9 rating.
This may be a problem for Pittsburgh in Week 1. Before focusing specifically on Stefon Diggs, let’s focus on the Steelers’ potential matchup issues with the Bills overall.
As noted, the Steelers will be beginning the year with some new starters in their base and sub-package defenses, while also having less proven depth overall. This will greatly impact their ability to match pass-heavy teams in their sub-packages. It is yet to be seen if the Steelers are comfortable with the players they have in order to run a significant amount of dime (6 DBs) defense in 2021.
But, their defensive coordinator Keith Butler did not offer a vote of confidence when discussing the outlook of their dime sub-package in 2021. The reason that becomes an issue is due to the fact that the Steelers’ 3-4 and nickel (5 DBs) defenses often result in exploitable matchups (which are exacerbated by the style of play employed by many modern-day NFL offenses) in passing situations. The Steelers’ defensive scheme requires off-ball linebackers to cover running backs, tight ends, and even occasionally inside wide receivers (a glaring mismatch) when the opposition opts to pass the football.
The acquisition of ILB Joe Schobert from Jacksonville, as well as the return of ILB Devin Bush from his ACL injury, should prove to create/be a sufficient coverage pairing, but a linebacker on a wide receiver or even a good/great receiving tight end/running back is still a matchup that opposing offenses will be able to key in on.
The Bills have a more than capable slot receiver in Cole Beasley, and Stefon Diggs can line up anywhere. On top of that, the Bills added veteran Emmanuel Sanders in the offseason, who, like the aforementioned WRs, can also handle slot duties (he can play outside and inside). If Schobert or Bush end up covering one of those guys in Week 1, the result of that matchup will likely not end up favoring the Steelers. Add in Gabriel Davis (he operates on the outside primarily but can play in the slot as well), who is a promising young receiver from the 2020 NFL Draft, and it would not shock me to see the Bills offense operating with four receivers on the field at a high rate in Week 1 and beyond.
Buffalo’s slot receivers often function as an extension of the running game for easy completions to make distance based on down more manageable. Since the Bills’ rushing attack isn’t all that imposing (outside of Josh Allen – second year RB Zack Moss has shown some promise, and Devin Singletary is serviceable), the Bills try to complete quick, short and easy completions. That helps to get drives going and maintain them along the way.
In this first clip from the Steelers-Buffalo Week 14 game in 2020, the Bills utilize an empty set (both their TE and RB are split out at the bottom of the screen), the Steelers are in nickel (2-4-5), and slot receiver Cole Beasley is covered by inside linebacker Avery Williamson. Beasley slow-plays his release off the line, then gives Williamson a shimmy before opting to break outside after his teammates clear out the defenders towards the sideline. This is as easy as they come for the Bills offense. They would be foolish not to employ a good amount of 10, 01, or 11 (shown) personnel against the Steelers in Week 1, if they see during the game that the Steelers are not comfortable enough to play some of their sub-package DBs in order to match up with the Bills pass-heavy looks accordingly. If Josh Allen spots a linebacker covering one of his slot receivers, he will automatically look to throw the football that receiver’s way.
Moving on, let’s get into the issues the Steelers’ DBs had in Week 14 of the 2020 NFL season when guarding Stefon Diggs. Before we get into the clips however, it does have to be stated that Stefon Diggs is one of the premier wide receivers in the NFL, and he is expected to produce week in and week out.
In my opinion, he is currently the second-best wide receiver behind only Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers. Diggs is a masterful technician of a route runner, and he knows how to operate on all levels of the football field. He has great hands, and at 6’0” tall he plays even bigger than his size indicates. He is an explosive playmaker that must be game planned for. It is to be expected that he will produce in Week 1 against the Steelers, so the Steelers’ goal should be to limit that production to the lowest degree possible.
Onto the clips. Here, Steven Nelson is playing Diggs a few yards off with an outside shade at the snap. Diggs takes a side-skip off the line in order to signal an intent to release outside to Nelson. Nelson begins shuffling backwards and even further outside towards Diggs’ outside path, consequently allowing Diggs to gain space and operate without resistance. Diggs utilizes his tempo exceptionally from high to low back to high again in order to lull Nelson to sleep. Then, after Diggs has moved Nelson backwards past the sticks without even touching him, he plants his left leg with a hard jab and cuts inside. Diggs only needs three yards for a first, and due to the situation, that short slant is a high-percentage throw as long as the defense is not fully anticipating it. After securing the catch, Diggs stays on his feet due to poor tackling attempts from both Minkah Fitzpatrick and Nelson.
The Steelers cannot afford to give the Bills’ playmakers opportunities to turn short gains into long YAC, especially not Stefon Diggs. Diggs is a great RAC receiver. They must wrap up.
This first clip displayed a recurring defensive technique issue from the Steelers’ CBs which allowed Diggs to operate so freely within his releases. The corner defending Diggs (whether that was Steven Nelson or Cam Sutton – remember, Joe Haden did not play in the game) often allowed Stefon Diggs to dictate/control the unconquered/neutral space off the line.
They did not battle for it in order to make Diggs’ job more difficult post-snap. They often gave away the space right after the snap, then “opened the gate” (opened/turned their hips) when threatened by Diggs, playing right into his hands so that he could control the entire outcome of the rep. They most likely played that way due to Diggs’ ability to stretch the field vertically. They wanted to make sure they weren’t beaten over the top, so they gave Diggs that free space underneath.
However, there are some clips where based on down and distance, Diggs was completely unchallenged. Let’s hop over to some more examples.
Here’s example #2, this time Cam Sutton is in coverage. Sutton is just off the line with an outside shade. Post-snap, he does a solid job of staying low in his pedal and square on top of Diggs, but as Diggs continues his side-shuffle/skip release to the outside after the initial hop, Sutton brings his head up and “opens the gate.” Diggs takes advantage by crossing Sutton’s face, then he turns (likely abruptly – his route is off screen) and works his way back to the football as the throw is reaching him, so that he has room to try and get upfield to gain some extra yards after the catch. Another uncontested catch from the corner defending Diggs.
This time Sutton is walked up in coverage, in-line with Diggs. Post-snap, it appears as though he gives a bit of a fake jam look due to his lower body mechanics (he false steps), and then he works into a continuous backpedal as Diggs creeps towards him. Diggs just lets Sutton remove himself from the neutral space, before he cuts inside on another slant in a 3rd and short situation. Diggs moves the chains and keeps the drive alive yet again. Too easy for Diggs again.
In this clip, Sutton is again walked up in coverage in-line with Diggs. As Diggs threatens vertically with a speed release and by slightly putting his head down post-snap, Sutton “opens the gate” again (immediately this time) to turn and run with Diggs down the sideline. However, in doing so, he exposes himself to Diggs’ COD skill. Diggs uses Sutton’s momentum against him (he already seemed a bit frantic and off-balance due to Diggs’ speed release) by giving him a subtle nudge that sends him further down the field and off the screen. Diggs then turns on a hitch to catch the short throw. With nothing but green grass in front of him, he picks up another first down before being taken down by converging Steelers defenders and a recovered Sutton.
Now back to Steven Nelson covering Diggs. Nelson is slightly off of and in-line with Diggs. Like Sutton in the last clip, Nelson immediately “opens the gate” as Diggs threatens him over the top in scoring position. Also like with Sutton, this is exactly what Diggs wants. He snaps inside to cross Nelson’s face without any resistance and catches a wide-open pass. Nelson tries to recover with a speed turn but he slips and falls, giving Diggs even more time and space to work with. Diggs takes the catch into the end zone for six. Minkah and Nelson both go for hits with their shoulders, but I don’t think wrapping up would have made much of a difference at that point regardless.
As the clips from 2020 Week 14 make clear, the Steelers’ starting outside CBs (Nelson and Sutton specifically) gave Diggs too much room to work with post-snap. They did not challenge him at the line in order to fight for the unclaimed/neutral space within five yards.
For Week 1 in 2021, when in man coverage, the corner defending Diggs must take away any freedom from his releases. The DB’s goal should be to infest Diggs’ air space and get hands on when possible (although that’s easier said than done). In zone coverage, the defender whose area Diggs enters needs to keep him in front and try to get a good jump on throws or wrap up if a pass is completed, limiting YAC in the process.
While keeping everything in front will result in some easy completions, it’s a better idea to make the Bills sustain a full drive down the field in order to score, rather than giving them the opening to complete big plays. Chunk gains and long touchdowns would raise the confidence level of their offense and aid their ability to get in a rhythm quickly. It would also mean the Steelers’ offense would be put into a position where they would feel as though they’d have to promptly match the scoring output of the Bills to stay in the game.
The Steelers will not win many games in which they are forced to play in that fashion in 2021. They need to control the time of possession and play fundamentally sound defense if they are to have aspirations of a deep playoff push.
The Steelers’ best option to limit Diggs could be to attempt to bracket him, which, if successfully done, would force the Bills to find someone else to beat them on the day. Playing a safety over the top would allow the Steelers’ corners to play more aggressive/physical underneath at the LOS. Still, the Bills have one of the most efficient and explosive passing attacks in football, and if they are to get hot Week 1, they will be tough to stop or even slow down, especially when considering the Steelers are going to be entering the game with a relatively unproven secondary sub-package wise.
The secondary and offensive line will be the two main position groups to watch come September 12th. Hopefully, another year of an elite pass rush will help lessen the learning curve and shortcomings coverage wise, that are to be expected when new faces are inserted into prominent roles. If the pass rush comes to play, that would take some pressure off of the new guys in the secondary. The less amount of time a DB has to cover, the easier their job becomes.
Football season is back! I hope yinz are as excited as I am! I know the points in this film room may come off as controversial/overcritical and when it comes down to it in the NFL, every team has a chance to win on any given Sunday (the Steelers will presumably be a competitive AFC team that will push for a playoff spot with grander aspirations in 2021), so make sure to provide your thoughts/opinions on the article in the comments below (I’d love to see your reasoning behind your agreements/disagreements), and as always, thank you for reading!