Former NFL scout, current director of The Scouting Academy, and ITP contributor Dan Hatman went to the film, scouting Pittsburgh for the details that will make the difference when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Seattle Seahawks.
The Steelers entered 2015 without Dick LeBeau as their Defensive Coordinator for the first time in over a decade. LeBeau’s zone blitz principles are used throughout the league and his former disciple, and now current Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler, is no different. In fact the biggest difference to date may be that Butler has brought a higher percentage of pressure this year. The team leverages a healthy rotation of four outside linebackers, Jarvis Jones, James Harrison, Arthur Moats, and 1st round pick Bud Dupree, each with 125+ pass rush attempts. Harrison has the highest number of QB pressures in that group. The team, as a whole, has not been dominant in individual pass rush situations and need group efforts to generate quality pressures. Unfortunately, neither Jones nor Dupree have matched the production we thought Pittsburgh needed from them.
The best player in the front 7 has been Cameron Heyward, who works all across the front in both 2 and 3 point stances and has been a quality run and pass defender while playing in 89% of the defensive snaps. Both Heyward and his fellow defensive tackle Tuitt have been critical pieces as they rarely come off the field, playing all 3 downs for a unit that does not have the type of rotation seen almost anywhere else in the NFL. None of the remaining lineman, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, or Daniel McCullers have played more than 40% of the snaps this year. It speaks to a level of fitness and competitive toughness that should be respected.
The area where Pittsburgh has been struggling for years (and again this season) is keeping quality starters and depth in the secondary. Cortez Allen is on IR and the team is starting Antwon Blake at right corner and William Gay with Ross Cockrell coming in for nickel situations and Gay moving to the slot. Cockrell has been a pleasant surprise to many, showing solid leverage in coverage and a physical nature to his play in both run and pass defense. There have been reports of injuries to Blake’s arms, but they are not an excuse for poor leverage and transitions in zone coverage. Blake has been the target of many passing games, especially when the Steelers line up in Cover 3 base and Cover 6.
Lawrence Timmons has played every defensive snap so far this season and when healthy, is joined by second year starter Ryan Shazier. The pair bring the physical skill sets you would like to have at the ILB position and have been functional, but not the players that they are capable of being. Shazier has really struggled with run fits in the A and B gaps and as such, the core of the Steelers run defense has been attacked constantly, waiting for the chance to break something open.
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Pittsburgh has deployed their corners to the left and right as opposed to matching up against certain WRs. As Seattle does not have a dominant WR to dictate coverage, this will continue vs. the Seahawks. Their 24 nickel package is the most common personnel grouping and is consistently deployed against 11 Personnel. Against this personnel, Blake is at LDC, Cockrell at RDC and Gay works the slot. When formation allows, the Steelers keep Will Allen deep, allowing Mike Mitchell to work closer to the line of scrimmage both in their Cover 3 and Cover 1 robber looks. Against 12 and 21 personnels, their base alignment is an odd front of Tuitt, McLendon, and Hayward with two of their four OLBs flanking that core group. In the 24 nickel package, McLendon leaves with Cockrell entering the game. The Steelers favor 5 players on the LOS regardless of package and will rotate Shazier onto the end of the LOS, bumping an OLB inside to maintain quick run fits with Timmons playing from his usual 5 yards off. Tight formations help the Steelers disguise looks, allow them to be versatile. The Raiders countered this with frequent spread sets which forced Pittsburgh to declare early and made things easier on Derek Carr.
Down and Distance Notes
1st Down – Heavy Cover 3 team on 1st and 10, using both a traditional ‘spot drop’ style coverage and a pattern match Cover 3. When they want to bring pressure from base, they have been using Cover 1 with a five man pressure, typically bringing both OLBs or an OLB and ILB combo along with their 3 DL. There has not been much disguise in these situations.
2nd Down – They use a mix of Cover 3 and Cover 6 on medium and long yardage situations to limit exposure and again and bring Cover 1 with five man pressures when looking to get after the QB. Frequently when facing 11 Personnel with 3X1 formations, Allen stays with the passing strength, leaving Mitchell as the single high DS.
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3rd Down – This is where the looks from both the front and secondary get interesting. Butler will have 5 of the 7 men on the LOS in a 2 point stance (including Hayward), bouncing around, making it hard on the OL / QB to set the protection. This also gives the Steelers multiple options in terms of bringing pressure from cross blitzes and stunts to DB pressure. In the backend, they will mix their usual fire zones behind pressure packages and will disguise between Cover 2 and Cover 1 robber in third and Long situations, baiting QBs into bad decision.
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What does it mean against SEA?
The Seahawks base inside zone game can be slowed down by Pittsburgh’s front five, but Cable and Bevell will have some wrinkles, like they did against the San Francisco 49ers to attack the poor key and diagnose skills and run fits of the ILB core, getting Rawls out into space. The Steelers will also need to tighten up their short and intermediate coverages, especially against crossing routes and concepts off bootlegs, as Seattle can use these well and the Steelers have not been consistent in defending them to date. QBs who extend plays inside or outside the pocket will put stress on the corners for Pittsburgh as the rush is not consistently getting to the ball quickly. This can be a big issue against Russell Wilson.
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Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman
Dan Hatman is the Director of The Scouting Academy and writes for Inside The Pylon when not teaching future football scouts and coaches how to do their job.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.