There are plenty of positives to take from Sunday’s opening-season 21-21 tie with the Pittsburg Steelers.
Rookie Denzel Ward came away with two interceptions and recorded six tackles in his NFL debut.
Genard Avery (who looks to already be a steal) recorded a sack and forced a fumble.
Last year’s first overall pick Myles Garrett recorded six tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and found time to defend a pass.
As a unit, the squad forced six turnovers (three fumbles and three interceptions) to keep the team in what was a *very* winnable game.
Avoiding the standard opening-season loss (even if the end result was a tie) and watching several young playmakers fly around the field is certainly a plus, but a closer look at the game reveals a fundamentally-flawed defense that does not do the little things right. The little things that MUST be done week in and week out to consistently win football games.
Two plays from the third quarter illustrate the team’s lack of fundamentals and serve as examples of what is to come if the defense does not shore up the small but significant details that must be heeded every play in order to win football games.
Let’s start with the run defense.
Steelers tailback James Conner carried the ball 31 times for 135 yards (4.4 ypc) and two touchdowns while adding five catches for 57 yards. Aside from the total yardage he was able to amass, the concerning part of Conner’s performance was the lack of fundamental run defense. Things like run fits (what gap am I responsible for?), technique and alignment.
Late in the third quarter holding a 14-7 lead, the Steelers started their second drive of the quarter on their own 39-yard line after a nifty 20-yard punt return by wide receiver Ryan Switzer. The special teams unit failed to pin back the offense and give the defense an opportunity to flip the field for a floundering offense; a three and out here is vital.
Get the stop, force a change of possession and give yourself the opportunity to field a punt and put the offense in plus-field position.
Unfortunately, the defense blew it on the very first play.
Like last year, a major part of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ game plan was to slow the Steelers ground attack with a variety of full-line and gap plug stunts.
Show the offense one formation as the quarterback surveys the defense and the center makes the line call (you block this guy), then exchange gap responsibilities after the snap.
Slants and gap games can blow up the run game because they force blockers to change assignments on the fly. Keep in mind that very blocker is responsible for a certain player or area based on the defensive alignment. When that alignment changes, players must have both the mental acuity and physical ability to get to their new assignment. Some can, some can’t.
Check out an old image from Todd Haley’s 2004 Cowboys playbook. He shows four different fronts and blocking schemes for a simple GT Counter (middle school teams run this play). Throw in the various fronts an NFL defense can show, and blockers could face 20-30 different looks just for a single, simple play.
Before getting to the tape, let’s get two important points on the record.
First, slants and gap plugs are an outstanding tool when tendencies have been scouted and the defensive coordinator has a good idea of where the ball is going. When a defense gets caught slanting the wrong direction, the potential for an explosive play dramatically rises because the defensive line is easy to “wash down” as they are already moving in the direction the offensive line wants to block them and the linebackers often take extra time to read and react (remember this is not a blitz, simply an exchange of gap responsibility; if the offense passes the linebacker must still execute his part of the coverage call).
Two, without a playbook and the specific defensive call we can only make best guesses.
With that said, 95 percent of football fundamentals are identical from 7/8-year-old playing youth ball all the way up to the NFL. There is A LOT more carryover than people think.
Moving on to the play, we see a “Pinch” stunt from the front seven (a great call against interior A/B-gap run such as Dive, Duo, Iso, and Inside Zone). Stuff the A-gap, prevent double teams at the point of attack via movement and force the ball carrier to bounce the ball towards the waiting linebackers.
The culprit here is linebacker Jamie Collins (No. 51).
Collins is responsible for the B-gap between the right tackle and right guard. He will read his run/pass key and backfield triangle for play type and direction, but in most cases, he owns this gap (gaps can change post-snap so gap responsibility can change post snap; think about what happens when a guard pulls from one side of the formation to the other).
Note that a fullback creates this potential for an extra gap to Collins’ side of the field. This is important.
Williams has accounted for this extra gap with his defensive front. This is a gap-sound front. The defense can match the offense player-for-player. This is also important.
With both interior linemen pinching into the A-gaps and WILL Christian Kirksey fitting the strongside B-gap, MIKE Joe Schobert is a “free hitter” against the run. He does not have a specific gap responsibility. He is there to account for the extra gap that could be created by the fullback and “correct the fit” of interior defenders that might not correctly defend their gap.
Run fits are like a jigsaw puzzle. If even a single piece is missing or just off, the entire puzzle collapses. Every man must do his job.
On to Collins.
This specific alignment and call required Collins to take on a blocker with his outside shoulder.
Again, he MUST take on a blocker with his inside shoulder for this alignment and slant to work correctly.
Why the inside shoulder?
It’s all about what football coaches refer to as “leverage”.
Collins will help if the fullback shows (Schobert) is located to his inside, along with three defensive linemen, another linebacker and a safety. This is the “pursuit.” If the ball comes his way, these other players will eventually make their way over as well. Even better, if Collins attacks the blocker correctly he will force the ball carrier to cut back right into those players. That’s the design.
By attacking the blocker with his inside shoulder, Collins ensures that if the tailback attempts to go outside through the B-gap his right arm is free and the ball carrier must cross his face. An NFL-worthy linebacker should be able to make this play all day.
Knowing that Collins is responsible for the B-gap and should attack any block with his inside shoulder to force the ball to his help, let’s see what happens.
Rather than colliding with the fullback at the line of scrimmage (you’re a SAM, go hit somebody) Collins inexplicitly dips inside, creating a massive cutback lane that Conner is more than happy to take.
1st and 10 (and eventually a touchdown on the Browns side of the field because a linebacker did not use proper leverage (a skill that is taught to junior high players).
On to the pass defense.
Our next play occurred earlier in the third quarter, and while the play was called back due to an illegal use of hands penalty, the breakdown in fundamentals is again concerning.
The defense is in a Tampa 2 goal line-variant often referred to as “Red 2”.
As a deep-half safety, Jabrill Peppers will read the No. 1 receiver’s (receivers are numbered outside to in) release as a run/pass key, then scan and midpoint (split the difference) the No. 1 and No. 2. If either receiver breaks his route in front of the safety, he must immediately move his eyes to the other as he is responsible for all vertical routes from either (the cornerback is responsible for the flats).
For example, if the No. 1 runs a simple 6-5 hitch, the safety must immediately get his eyes to the No. 2 receiver as teams will often run him on a corner route via the “Smash” concept.
The key point here is Peppers must use good eye discipline when either receiver breaks off a route.
Let’s see what happens.
Peppers initially does a good job “flat foot reading” the No. 1 and No. 2, but watch what happens when the No. 2 (halfway between the hash and numbers) runs a speed out.
A break on the speed out is not Pepper’s play to make in this coverage. It belongs to the cornerback.
Peppers MUST get eyes to the No. 1 receiver when the No. 2 breaks towards the sideline.
Again, this is basic stuff. Read No. 1 to No. 2 (or No. 2 to No. 1 depending on the coach), midpoint if they push vertical, snap the eyes to the other receiver if either break in the short to intermediate area, “buy” the route and read the quarterbacks eyes, shoulder, and front hand to break on a throw.
If the second-year player reads his key and exercises correct eye discipline, the speed out will take his eyes directly to the post route that threatens the middle-of-the-field hole (a weak point in Tampa 2).
Instead, Peppers widens at least two steps with the out route rather than matching the post route coming right at him. As a result, he is woefully out of position and has no chance of playing the ball. He doesn’t make it to the same zip code as the catch point.
Inexcusable for an NFL player. Like the previous play, this is basic high school football fundamentals.
The defense MUST shore up these issues ASAP if the team expects to be competitive. The offense will likely continue to run hot/cold while certain players find their way. With points at a premium, the unit simply cannot give up freebies like the plays above. Make the offense earn their scores (like Antonio Brown’s touchdown; Ward’s man coverage was OUTSTANDING).
Behind every big play, good or bad, there is usually a small detail that was missed, ignored or neglected. This Sunday, look for the little things when something big happens. This defense has the talent to win football games. Does it possess the discipline and attention to detail necessary?
The jury remains out.