After taking a hard look at the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense and all of the problems it presents on the ground and through the air, it's time now to see what quarterback Carson Wentz is up against with this defensive unit. Head coach Mike Tomlin's defense is very strong in situational football. It ranks at the top of the league in red zone scoring percentage (just 14.3 percent) and is No. 3 on third down (26.9 percent). This is not a heavy blitz operation in terms of volume, but the Steelers are not afraid to send their two inside linebackers. Typically, when they do blitz, there's a disguised form of zone coverage on the back end. This scheme with coordinator Keith Butler loves to bait quarterbacks into making poor throws, and one of the favorite ways to do it is with Trap coverage.
Shot 1 - #Steelers use a lot of different 'Trap' coverage schemes to bait QBs into turnovers. Dalton ekes out an incompletion here pic.twitter.com/cV9H0WnBOw — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 23, 2016
It's third-and-7, and the Steelers come out in their dime package with six defensive backs. This is a team that utilizes several different subpackage personnel groupings, with players lining up in different spots, so that's something to keep in mind as well. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton sits back presnap and it's pretty easy for him to see that he's going to be getting pressure from the slot. With two defenders aligned over the No. 2 receiver, Dalton can easily assume that at least one of them is coming, leaving the other in man coverage against the slot receiver.
The ball is snapped, but both defenders actually enter the rush. Dalton can't believe it. This must be some kind of busted coverage. The cornerback on the perimeter is in man, and the slot receiver is running right into the flat, away from the defender buzzing out from the middle of the field. But this isn't man coverage, it's actually a form of Trap coverage, where the corner to that side pretends to drop in man before getting his eyes back inside to take away those short out-breaking routes. Dalton sees this at the last minute and diverts the throw just enough for it to fall incomplete, but this was a near interception for the Pittsburgh defense in a four-point game.
Many of Wentz's biggest plays so far have come against man coverage, just because of the way Cleveland and Chicago played the Eagles through the first two games. Sure, there were a handful of big completions against zone, but not against the type of disguise and illusion that the Steelers can bring to the table from a coverage standpoint on Sunday. This is an area where Wentz's preparation and pre-snap ability to diagnose coverage will have to come up big against Pittsburgh.
When Pittsburgh isn't disguising its coverage and trying to trap quarterbacks with zone blitzes, it likes to sit back in very basic Cover 3 or Cover 2 concepts. Like with the Seattle Seahawks, it's not terribly complicated or difficult to attack, but the Steelers ask their defenders to play fast, execute their assignment and rally to the football. The defensive personnel is loaded with extremely violent and competitive players. From linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons to stout defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, all the way back to safety Mike Mitchell and the veteran situational edge rusher in James Harrison, this is a group that wants to sink back, read the quarterback and get to the football with bad intentions.
However, we've seen teams try to attack their basic coverages through the first two weeks with some mixed results.
It's first-and-10 against Washington, and the Steelers are sitting back in their basic Cover 3 zone with three deep defenders (two cornerbacks and a safety in the middle of the field) and four underneath defenders. Washington has a great play call here in the form of a Post-Wheel out of the slot. Kirk Cousins locks in on tight end Jordan Reed, who is running the deep over route here. The pattern will take him right into the heart of the zone coverage, with an underneath defender in the Hook area and two deep defenders coming over top. This play is built to attack Cover 3 down the opposite hash, but Cousins doesn't even get there. Instead, he throws a pick to Shazier in the middle of the field.
This is a shot from last week's game against Cincinnati. The Bengals call another Cover 3 beater on this play. What better way to beat three deep defenders than with four vertical routes? Well, unfortunately for the Bengals, Pittsburgh is not in Cover 3. It is in Cover 2, with two high safeties in the deep half of the field. Timmons, a veteran player who still has the range and athletic ability to play in this type of scheme, drops down the chute between the hashes. His role in this coverage is to defend the most dangerous threat down the seam. He reacts to the seam route to his left, and converges on the throw along with Mitchell to lay the receiver out and get the ball on the ground for an incompletion. You see the violent nature of this team on that throw, and it's something that Eagles receivers will have to be aware of on Sunday afternoon.
Those were all positive plays for the defense, but there were plenty of examples of receivers running free downfield in the soft spots in zone coverage. There are voids in every coverage scheme. It will be up to the offensive staff here in Philadelphia to put in plays to attack those coverages and for the players to execute the calls to move the chains and put points on the board at Lincoln Financial Field.
Here is one fact that many only interest me. On offense, the Steelers have exactly zero rookies on the roster. Not one. On defense, there's only four. One is seventh-round pick Tyler Matakevich from Temple, a backup and special teams player at this stage of his career. The other three were the Steelers' first three picks from the draft, and all of them are very big parts of the game plan on a week to week basis.
Second-round pick Sean Davis is listed as a safety on the roster, but he is the slot player in almost all of their nickel subpackages. This is a role that Davis has never really played (he saw occasional reps in the slot as a safety his junior year at Maryland). He's had his ups and downs, which I broke down in this week's podcast. Pittsburgh drafted another defensive back ahead of Davis though, cornerback Artie Burns.
Shot 4 - #Steelers Rd2 pick Sean Davis plays slot in nickel and S in Dime. Here's Rd1 Pick Artie Burns (Dime CB) making play in red zone pic.twitter.com/NxEh0qZAMs — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 23, 2016
Burns' impact on defense right now is only in its dime subpackage, where he comes in to play on the outside at cornerback with William Gay moving inside. Coincidentally, Davis slides back to his listed safety position, which you can see here on this play down in the red zone. Burns is targeted on this play with a throw along the sideline, and he uses his leaping ability to make a play on this ball for an incompletion.
Shot 5 - Rookie 3rd Rounder Javon Hargrave starting NT in their 3-4 base, not a subpackage player right now. Love the motor here @JoshNorris pic.twitter.com/3efTx07odH — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 23, 2016
The third rookie making an impact on defense is nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who makes an outstanding play here in pursuit down the field. Hargrave was initially perceived as a subpackage player in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme. Surprisingly, however, he's been installed as the starter in the base package. Many analysts thought Hargrave was a better fit for an attacking 4-3 scheme like what the one employed here in Philadelphia, but Hargrave has adapted well to what the Steelers are asking him to do. He is capable of disrupting the run and pass game inside, but he's a much different type of player than say a Danny Shelton of the Browns or Chicago's Eddie Goldman, the two nose tackles whom the Eagles have faced in the first two weeks.
Coming out of Ohio State a couple of years ago, you could see the kind of explosiveness Shazier had and the ability to be a sideline-to-sideline player. That burst allows him not only to move laterally, but also downhill, where his aggressive nature allows him to be a very effective run defender between the tackles.
On this play against Washington, Shazier flies downhill and blows up running back Matt Jones in the backfield for a loss. Shazier will try to cheat plays and go back door against the run, but he absolutely has the movement skills to overcome that and make plays all over the field.
On this tackle against the Bengals a week ago, you see that range from Shazier once again. Watch how quickly he's able to get leverage against the blocker on the perimeter, beating him to the corner and meeting running back Jeremy Hill in the flats for the stop.
Shot 8 - Shazier also a valuable piece of the puzzle in coverage - makes a play vs Jordan Reed here. #Steelers have No. 1 Red Zone D in NFL pic.twitter.com/cqWu5t4nx6 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) September 23, 2016
Shazier's athleticism shows up in the passing game as well. I showed you an interception earlier, but here he is down in the red zone matched up on dynamic tight end Jordan Reed in man coverage. There's a bit of contact here, but Shazier gets the ball on the ground on a great play in the back of the end zone. Whether it's the run game or the passing game, the Eagles have to be aware of where Shazier is at all times and account for him in the blocking scheme.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.