The Steelers defense had a tough start to the regular season, as they got picked apart by Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense in a 28-point rout in Week 1. The defensive struggles in the first few weeks of the season–most notably the aforementioned season-opener against arch-rival Baltimore–prompted many football experts to label the Steelers defenders as old and slow. However, since the criticism, the Steelers have been flying around to the ball, making plays and putting the clamps down on offenses.
They currently rank top-10 in the NFL in both rush and pass defense and look to continue to build on the recent defensive success. More importantly, the Steelers are fourth in the NFL in points allowed per game (17.9). This past weekend, the Steelers allowed 17 points in a big divisional game against the young and talented Cincinnati Bengals. They also forced a turnover to seal the game, which is something they’d struggled to do in the previous eight weeks.
Before the game-winning interception, the Steelers came out in their standard 3-4 front seven with safety Ryan Clark being the lone defender in the deep middle of the field, as pictured below. The three down linemen aligned in an ‘Okie’ front, which requires the nose tackle and two defensive ends to align head up on the center and offensive tackle. Pass rusher James Harrison on the left aligned in a 9 technique whilst Jason Worilds on the right was in a loose five technique. Lastly, inside linebacker James Farrior lined up across the left tackle in a 40 technique while Lawrence Timmons was in a 20 technique.
As the image expands, one can see from a sideline view that the rest of the defense (the secondary) was aligned to defend the Bengals’ Trips formation, which is three pass catchers to one side and a single vertical threat on the backside (top of screen). Based off of the alignment by the Steelers’ secondary defenders, one would guess that it could have been two types of coverage: Man-Free (Cover 1) or Cover 3. However, there was also the chance they’d send the dreaded zone-blitz, which has proven to be an issue for young quarterbacks against Dick LeBeau and the Steelers.
At the snap of the ball, the Steelers inside linebackers and free safety backpedaled to get to their landmark, while Worilds dropped to his designated spot in the flats. By watching the linebackers get to their landmarks, one would note that it is a form of zone coverage, and since there is one deep safety that is rotating to the middle of the field, it makes it Cover 3.
Cover 3 is a defensive coverage that has four underneath zone defenders and three deep defenders. The four underneath defenders in this case were strong safety Troy Polamalu, Farrior, Timmons, and Worilds on the outside. The responsibilities of the four underneath are broken down into two categories: curl/flat defenders and hook defenders.
The curl/flat defenders’ responsibility is self-explanatory: the curl to flat area, which is on top of the numbers and out to the sideline as he expands with the eyes of the quarterback, while the two hook defenders are responsible for the middle of the field.
Meanwhile, the three deep defenders, which are the two cornerbacks and free safety in the middle of the field, split the field into thirds as they drop deep.
On the other side of the ball, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton took a quick three-step drop out of shotgun and made a half-field read to his right. Dalton’s read was made before the snap once he went through his keys. This pre-snap read is common when throwing passes out of a three-step drop, which is also known as quick game.
To his right, the Bengals ran a ‘Snag’ concept, a passing concept that aims to stretch the flat defender–in this case, Worilds–of the defense horizontally. This stretching of the weak side defender is done by a flat threat, which is what running back Cedric Benson provides on this play. He stretches Worilds horizontally by running a swing route, while wide receiver Jerome Simpson takes a diagonal stem of roughly five yards before ‘sitting’ down once Worilds runs past him. Simpson is taught to do exactly that when running the snag route.
As Dalton explained, he read his flat receiver, Benson, first to widen the weak side linebacker before turning his eyes to Simpson, who ran the snag route. However, on the throw, Dalton’s ball placement was off. Dalton should have thrown this ball to the outside shoulder of his intended receiver. Because of this poor ball placement, Steelers cornerback William Gay was able to plant his foot, drive on the throw and create the turnover once he secured the interception.
The Steelers have been long known for their complex blitzing schemes, but on this day, the execution of a simple coverage sealed the win in a big divisional game.
Lastly, from the Bengals’ perspective, while this loss may be tough to take, it is most certainly an impressive performance by Dalton and his young teammates. The rookie went into Heinz field and kept his poise despite two turnovers and, most importantly, kept his team in the game to the end. Dalton will surely learn from this performance and be ready to take on the Steelers once again in three weeks.