The Pittsburgh Steelers Might Have the Best Defense in the AFC

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense has been young and fast for a few years, but now it’s also versatile and complex. There's no ceiling in sight, and the unit could become the best D in the AFC
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In 2015, Keith Butler, one of the NFL’s most aggressive and creative defensive coordinators, was hearing from his Steelers colleagues that he should push even harder. Install more of our designer blitzes and hybrid coverages, the assistant coaches said. We could have the most textured and complex defense in football.

Butler was unsure. Pittsburgh’s blitz-intensive, matchup-zone scheme was undoubtedly great, but inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky, outside linebackers coach Joey Porter and secondary coach Carnell Lake had all played for the Black and Gold in the 1990s and 2000s. To them, the scheme was second nature. But not yet to the twentysomethings who had to execute it now.

Butler likes to tell people that “good coaching is not about what you can call, it's about what you can call that your players can do.” Entering 2016, Butler’s lineup included a greener-than-grass secondary, with rookies Artie Burns (corner) and Sean Davis (safety) joining career backups Ross Cockrell (corner) and dime package player Robert Golden (safety).

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In that training camp, Butler had talked up the various disguises and pressure tactics the Steelers would employ. But when the season opened on a Monday night at Washington, the Steelers played vanilla zone coverage snap after snap. That continued for the next several weeks. Watching their film was like enrolling in a 400-level calculus class and getting lectures on basic arithmetic.

Butler had a plan, though. Be simple, get the young guys comfortable and playing fast, and eventually introduce more of those time-tested Steeler pressure packages. As for the even more advanced stuff that the assistants had pined for? It’d have to wait.

The plan worked. Butler’s callow defense survived early on, allowing 22.9 points and 380 yards a game in its first nine outings. In the last seven games, it gave up just 17.3 point and 294 yards, which both ranked fourth in the NFL over that span. The supposedly offensive-driven Steelers rode an old-school heavy ground game and smashmouth defense to the AFC Championship Game.

That was where Butler realized they had to change. That night, they showed Tom Brady a few different looks before the snap but wound up dropping into basic zone coverages after it. Many of the coverages had eight defenders instead of the usual seven. The Texans had had success against New England with eight-man coverages the week before, but the Texans also had safeties and corners who could match up. Sitting back in the elementary zones they’d begun the season with, the Steelers were picked apart and Brady finished with 374 yards passing.

Months later, Butler told reporters that in order to beat the champions, the Steelers had to embrace more matchup coverages. They’re not the first AFC team to carve an identity around beating New England. The Broncos did the same during the John Fox era, prioritizing players whom they felt could match up against Brady and his receivers. That meant man-to-man corners and pass rushers.

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Heading into 2017, the Steelers believed they had a quality budding pass rusher in Bud Dupree, their first-round pick from 2015. But with James Harrison aging, they needed another. In spring, they drafted T.J. Watt in the first round. But that was the only significant offseason move. When Butler talked about matching up, observers were incredulous because the Steelers still had the same zone-based corners whom Brady had torched. Maybe 2016's first-rounder Artie Burns could become a true cover artist, but he alone wouldn’t be enough. It’s one thing to talk about more matchup coverages; it’s another to do it. Good coaching, remember, is about calling things your players can actually do.

Then came a gift from the heavens. Or, to be exact, Cleveland. Joe Haden. The longtime Brown was released Aug. 30, and, within eight hours, signed by Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who almost never dips into the expensive free-agent market. Now not only did the Steelers have a potential No. 1 man corner (when healthy, Haden, 28, is still that), they had secondary depth. A subtly declining William Gay could have his role reduced to part-time slot duties. Sean Davis wouldn’t have to moonlight in the slot again; he could now focus fulltime on playing safety. When you add a top-level piece to your secondary, everyone’s job gets easier.

Remember, Haden joined the same defense that, even without the fully expanded matchup coverages, improved down the stretch in 2016. Through two games in 2017, that defense has looked great. Watt has the dip-and-bend ability of a bona fide star pass rusher. The front line of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt (expected back soon from a biceps injury) and nimble-footed 305-pounder Javon Hargrave is destructive. Behind them, there’s no faster linebacker than Ryan Shazier. And his running mate, first time starter and fifth-year veteran Vince Williams, has been playing at a much greater speed.

It’s reasonable to talk about Pittsburgh becoming the best defense in the AFC. With such diverse talent, they’ve started showing the schematic expansion that Butler’s assistants desired. In Week 1 against the Browns, they played almost as much man coverage as zone coverage, alternating between variations of each. Against the Vikings in Week 2, it was almost all two-high zone in the first half . . . with the added wrinkle of cornerback blitzes. You don’t see many true two-deep safety coverages behind a corner blitz. Not only did the Steelers employ that, they also disguised the coverage, making it look like man but converting it late into zone. (“Cover 2 trap” is the tactic’s formal name.)

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The inside linebacker blitzes that have long hallmarked Pittsburgh’s scheme also remain. Last Sunday, Shazier or Williams, depending on who was lined up away from the running back’s side, frequently attacked up the middle, with an outside edge player dropping back, creating a blitz on one side but leaving enough bodies for a full seven-man coverage behind it. 

The Steelers have been young and fast for a few years. But now they’re young, fast, versatile and complex. Improvement is inevitable, and there's no ceiling in sight.

Film Room Elaboration

There’s no other corner in the league you can say this about. Chris Harris, though somewhat diminutive himself, can match up against size, and he has the hips and recovery technique to defend quick, shifty inside receivers. What also stands out is how well Denver’s corners handle rub routes, natural picks and stack releases. Their man coverage so often stays firm against man-beater concepts.

Too bad this wasn’t true on the other side for Minnesota. Cornerback Trae Waynes has struggled against outside deep routes these first two weeks. The Saints’ Tommylee Lewis got him on a double-move in Week 1 and Martavis Bryant torched him repeatedly in Week 2 (the ball wasn’t always thrown). Waynes must tighten and accelerate his transition out of his backpedal. Expect the Bucs to go after him with DeSean Jackson early and often Sunday.

No offense puts more stress on opposing linebackers than Kansas City’s. On the majority of snaps, different players are going in different directions, often with multiple options built into the same play. It looks like live action art.

Keep an Eye On

Packers second-round rookie corner Kevin King. He was game coming off the bench at Atlanta last Sunday night, including when he went up against Julio Jones. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is desperate for trustworthy cover corners. If King picks up where he left off on Sunday, he’ll soon be an everydown player.

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Cause for Concern?

Last week’s Deep Dive discussed how we really won’t know about Dak Prescott until he has to play under unfavorable circumstances. Well, at Denver, Dallas’s running game disappeared. The Cowboys fell behind 35-10 in the third quarter and Prescott wound up dropping back more than 50 times. Two of those dropbacks resulted in interceptions, and the Cowboys lost handily. Sound the alarm? No. Prescott wasn’t the reason Dallas lost. He didn’t play particularly well and was certainly a part of the losing effort, but the bigger issue was the receivers’ inability to win against Denver’s back seven, regardless if it was man or zone coverage. With all the spread sets the Cowboys run, when receivers struggle, much of the system won’t work. Maybe that’s a cause for concern, but this was one game. Chalk it up under “just one of those days” and put it loosely in the back of your mind.

Injury Impact

There’s no bright side to losing any player to injury, especially not a perennial Pro Bowler such as Ravens guard Marshal Yanda, who is out for the season with an ankle injury. But on the “maybe it’s not quite as dark as you think” side, the Ravens realized that, besides Yanda and left tackle Ronnie Stanley, they’re short on athleticism up front. That makes it difficult to run their foundational outside zone ground game. So, this year, the Ravens have installed more “gap scheme” concepts, with pullers and man-to-man blocking. Yanda was irreplaceable in an outside zone scheme. In gap scheme? Well, the Ravens at least have a better chance at treading water without him.

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The Non-Football Thing on My Mind

You’re walking down the sidewalk and find yourself perfectly in the path of someone coming towards you. You and the other person do a little dance, trying to avoid each other. You go this way, then that way, then oop, back this way again, and then, okay, fine, back that way. There should be an official procedure for this: always go to the right. Anytime you’re in the direct path of someone else, both parties step to the right. If one party cannot, that party must stay still; the person with access to the right has the right of way. Think of it as the pedestrian version of when two perpendicular cars simultaneously reach an uncontrolled intersection. This should be a staple etiquette lesson in a child’s upbringing, right alongside please and thank you and keep your elbows off the table.

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