Heading into Thursday’s game, the Pittsburgh Steelers have rolled out clear gameplans facing offenses with an obvious, top weapon. Shut him down. Bracket him, double him, and minimize his impact. We did a video focusing on that defensive emphasis earlier in the year, slowing down the likes of Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and Darren Waller.
So it stood to reason Pittsburgh would deploy a similar gameplan against Minnesota Vikings’ WR Justin Jefferson Thursday night especially knowing their #2 WR Adam Thielen was out of action due to a high ankle sprain. There was no other receiver threat who put immense fear in you. Not in the way Jefferson does.
But that wasn’t what Pittsburgh did. They treated Jefferson like any other “normal” receiver. And the Vikings made the Steelers pay. Jefferson finished the game with seven catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. A stat line that doesn’t look horrendous but Jefferson did his damage to help race the Vikings out to a big first half lead. And Jefferson nearly came away doing a lot more damage.
A quick film breakdown into how Jefferson ate against the Steelers’ defense.
Jefferson and the Vikings consistently won in the first half on over and crossing patterns, bending routes across the field that best beat man coverage or can flood zone if distributed properly. But Pittsburgh primarily played man. First example we’ll look at is his 14-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.
RCB Cam Sutton in man coverage on Jefferson. Check out the pre-snap alignment. Sutton is playing with outside leverage, which easily gives up the inside crossing route and immediately puts Sutton in a trailing position the rest of the route.
The Vikings are running a pair of crossing patterns, sort of like a Yankee concept (no true post here with how condenses the field was in the red zone) against the Steelers’ single-high coverage. That puts Minkah Fitzpatrick in a bind with both corners, Sutton and Ahkello Witherspoon, in similar tough spots. Fitzpatrick ultimately follows #83 Tyler Conklin’s route, appearing to be looked off by Kirk Cousins.
Sutton does his best to make up ground by taking an underneath angle to the football. But Cousins makes a pretty throw and Sutton simply isn’t athletic enough to run with a 4.43 player like Jefferson the width of the field. Touchdown, Vikings.
Similar story later in the half, though the outcome ultimately doesn’t hurt the Steelers. Third down. Steelers in their dime package with Justin Layne on the field at RCB, bumping Cameron Sutton to the slot. Layne gets matched up 1v1 with Jefferson. Not a crosser/Yankee concept like before but Jefferson runs a post after stemming and selling his route to the outside.
Again, Layne is playing with outside leverage but ultimately doesn’t get any help to the middle of the field. Jefferson’s route is elite and gets Layne to stop his feet. The idea of being able to put Layne in man coverage on Jefferson and expect a good outcome is just bad coaching and process. Pittsburgh gets bailed out with pressure impacting Cousins’ throw, causing a slightly inaccurate pass that clangs off Jefferson’s hands.
This time, a completion for a 22-yard gain later in the game. Same idea as the first example, Jefferson’s touchdown. Jefferson on the cross against Ahkello Witherspoon who is playing with outside leverage. Like Sutton, Witherspoon is trailing the whole way and struggles even more than Sutton to keep up, losing his balance and allowing a ton of space. Cousins hits him for the completion. Perhaps Sutton should’ve come off his initial route earlier.
One more example. Not a crossing route but a slant route here. Jefferson to the bottom of the screen. Sutton is playing loose, off coverage here and Jefferson has an uncontested release off the line and to the middle of the field. Once he clears the window of the safety running across (Pittsburgh doesn’t travel CBs so Edmunds comes across on the motion) Cousins hits him for a pitch and catch with YAC to boot.
All of these examples are just too easy. You have to make their superstars work to make their plays. If you’re losing leverage and giving up the battle right away, you’re going to make life hard on yourself. Previously, the Steelers’ defense forced team to turn to Plan B and Plan C and other guys to step up and make plays. And for Minnesota, they did with Conklin and Osborn having their moments in this one.
But the Steelers’ plan on Jefferson was a curious one. For chunks of the season, Pittsburgh has used a “Zombie” call to pass off these crossers by asking the safety to cut the crosser and the cornerback replace as the safety. To be fair, that’s come against certain personnel groupings and routes, usually just two-man concepts against heavy sets, but it was a good solution to getting out-leveraged. Here’s a recent example of it working well even in an otherwise ugly loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Watch Terrell Edmunds cut the cross and Cam Sutton work vertical to replace and check out Sutton’s happy reaction after the play of how seamlessly the two passed things off.
Didn’t see that in this game. We’ll have to go through the All-22 but the Steelers’ performance was poor in this one by the coaches and the players. Combine the two and you allow 36 points to the Vikings in a losing effort.