In the first half of last Sunday's game, the Steelers ran a wide open, shotgun-based passing attack. In the second half, that changed dramatically:
The change of philosophy was evident on the very first series in the third quarter, when the Steelers came out in power, tight formations. Here's the first play:
You can see that we're heavily shaded to the strong side of the formation with our linebackers. And while we're keeping both safeties back, that gap through which the RB is coming is Kurt Coleman's responsibility.
We should pause here for a moment to talk about that, because it's interesting in its own right. Remember when we played the Giants and there were those two big completions off play action that Nnamdi and the safeties gave up? Here was the after-the-fact explanation:
On the first play, Asomugha tried to bump Ramses Barden at the line, but the receiver got behind him. Ideally, Asomugha would have had safety help there, but Kurt Coleman bit on a play fake and was late to recover.
Coleman said his priority on that play was a "run-first read." So while it was preferable for Coleman not to bite, it was still Asomugha's ultimate responsibility to defend Barden, who pulled in a 31-yard pass down the sideline.
"For him, he sees a pass play because a wide receiver is running deep," Coleman said. "But if I'm reading something different, I don't always see it as fast as him because I'm looking at something else."
At the time, this didn't make much sense to me. Why do you ask a safety to read run first if he's got deep coverage responsibilities? Then the Steelers game happened -- and trust me, you're going to be as sick of reading about weakside gap assignments by the end of this as I was watching them -- and it started to make more sense.
As a refresher, here's that Giants play:
Coleman is in a deep safety position, with a "run-first read" and also deep help responsibilities. But notice something else as we flip the camera angle:
Just as in the Steelers formation above, there's no one in that gap behind which Coleman is standing. And because "as everyone knows" we play a one-gap scheme, that means that must be his gap assignment.
So this explains a lot of things:
- What a run-first read means (there's no one else to play that gap);
- Why Coleman is the free safety in the Castillo scheme (because the weak side safety has to be the better run support player than the strong side safety given our alignments -- see above);
- What they really think of Nnamdi Asomugha (since, well, we'll get to that).
Back to the Steelers, here's that play as it unfolds:
And how it looks from Coleman's perspective:
On the next play, the Steelers have a slightly different formation, but they're going to attack the same gap:
With the backs in the I, we're not overshifted as much, and Jamar Chaney should be able to shut down that gap:
But the counter action draws him inside:
Opening up the backdoor escape route (even more so because that receiver is again cracking down on Coleman):
On that one, blame Chaney for getting out of his gap, but take a look at the photo before the last one and notice that if he hadn't, the play would have worked just as well. If he stays outside the tackle, the run goes inside. We're screwed either way, and it's because we don't have enough numbers in the box to take on all the blockers.
Surely if we saw the exact same thing three times in a row, by then Castillo would have made some sort of adjustment, right?
Two safeties back, gap unfilled. Our guys do a better job with rush, crush, close on this one (since they've seen the same damn thing three times in a row) and the run doesn't go as far, but the hole's there:
The Steelers are going to throw a couple of passes, then it's right back to the same look:
The run goes right this time, for a short gain, and I honestly think Haley just did that to keep us in this stupid defensive alignment. "See guys, worked that time! You're too tough for us!"
Next play is another run, this time a draw. We're still keeping two deep:
On third and two, we finally get aggressive:
I liked this call. It's man across with one free safety and Ryans standing in the middle, half-zoning and half-keeping an eye on Roethlisberger. It's a call that plays to our strengths and provides some insurance against the rumbling scrambler.
Unfortunately, the Steelers go max protection, and we end up wasting both Allen and Kendricks in coverage as their men just block and they never move:
We were lucky on this play that Ben just overthrew Wallace, who had gotten behind DRC on a crossing route. They punt.
Series two, we finally adjust:
We walked down Allen late, the Steelers don't account for him, and he makes a tackle after a short gain. Steelers went pass-pass-punt after that.
Series three, we're back to playing it safe. Two safeties back, here comes the lead and pulling guard:
We had seven-on-seven, but the pull gives them a numbers advantage and it works:
Now, you may have detected a certain tone so far, and it's intentional, but the next play is bullshit for reasons having nothing to do with our defensive calls. Castillo actually dials up a run blitz right into the gap the Steelers are headed towards. Safety crashes down too:
The problem is that the right tackle has Cox wrapped up at the point of attack:
And the right guard is holding Kendricks so badly that the rookie ends up trying to make a play with his back:
Lots of pad shifting around after this play once they'd been yanked all over the place. Yeah, running the ball is pretty damn easy when you can just tackle the defenders.
Anyway, next play, looks like we've finally figured out that we need to have someone in that weakside gap:
So good, it took almost a quarter, but we're there, we're adjusted, and we're all set. Unless, of course, the offense does something mean like adjust again.
Next play, Coleman's in a good spot, Chaney just screws everything up:
In that last photo, you can see Chaney POINTING at the gap Coleman is supposed to take. Surely that means Chaney has the inside covered, right?
Cautiously optimistic ...
Kaboom. Backwards and out of the hole.
While we were all watching that, though, Todd Haley noticed something else. Take a look at the pre-snap rotation again:
As Coleman came down, we move to a three-deep look, and while DRC can turn and burn to get deep, Nnamdi no longer can. He's fading back before the snap.
So, next play, same formation, same rotation:
Bam, screen pass:
Nnamdi's so far off the ball it's an easy 10 yards. And the tight end out blocking actually does something cool, in that he starts towards Kendricks, then either [ realizes he can / is coached to ] let him go, figuring the WR can outrun him. He heads for Nnamdi instead.
It's just not fair when they other guy won't stand still.
The next play, we finally say Enough Is Enough and bring everyone to the line:
Our linebackers are no longer overshifted -- putting a big body in that $#@ing hole finally -- we have a safety providing an extra body on the strong side, and Nnamdi is back up tight again.
It's even interesting to watch Matthews in that position:
He's got his gap responsibility, but unlike Coleman, when the ball doesn't come to him, he actually does something about it:
Nice play. Have to think he's going to get a look at some point on the weak side this year. Chaney's certainly not keeping the job.
Before we wrap this up, I want to talk about one play on the last drive. Not the third-and-12. I'm sure other people will show the photos for that one. I mean the third-and-four that came when the Steelers were just on the edge of field goal range at the Eagles' 38.
When Reid after the game talked puzzlingly about being in 2-man on the big third down conversion, everyone assumed he meant the first one. As he cleared up in his Monday press conference, it was the second one, and you can see why it would have stuck in his craw a bit.
Here's the pre-snap alignment:
We're showing a two-deep safety look. Right away this is strange, because they only need four yards. If they want to throw a 20-yard pass instead, let them. There's no reason to have our safeties back there.
Now look at the routes:
The top and outside receivers in the triplet are going to push off and run in and out breaking routes. The bottom guy is going to follow the tight end and use him as a moving screen. If he can isolate Boykin on one side, then he simply breaks to the other and there's literally no way the rookie can cover him.
You can see the trouble off the snap:
There's almost nothing Boykin can do there against any route. He might be able to break hard on a slant, but that's an iffy proposition at best. And if the receiver runs outside, he's completely blocked.
The receiver sets him up:
And then breaks out. The ball is already in the air:
They needed to get a four on three situation over there. Let Nnamdi play short outside and use the safety to cover outside deep. I've given a lot of credit to Bowles so far this year. Not on that play.