Film Room: Steelers’ Pass Defense Carved Up Over The Middle


The Pittsburgh Steelers’ pass defense felt like swiss cheese yesterday. Holes over the middle and they stunk pretty bad. Film room sessions in the preseason can be a challenge with poor camera angles, especially looking at secondary play, but with as bad as things got, you don’t really need the All-22.

Atlanta knew exactly where to attack the Steelers’ defense: over the middle. Let’s take a look.

Think this first play is the most egregious example. Playaction, no other WR is even running past the LOS, the other WR faking the end around, and yet the WR makes a generally uncontested catch, Ross Cockrell and Robert Golden arriving late.


There was the same issue the play before. 3rd and 8, a down Mike Tomlin harped on as an issue coming out of the game. Fire Zone blitz, Artie Burns coming on a Cat (corner) blitz from the right side. Doesn’t get home. Robert Golden, rolling down to replace Burns while Will Gay rotates as the deep 1/2 safety. But the receiver runs a ten yard dig to the MOF. Both linebackers expand with their flat routes, leaving no one over the middle.

And earlier in the game, a 1st in 10 with another dig complete over the middle. Golden can’t close on the ball in time to play the catch point, only able to make the tackle.

This game shows the impact of not having Mike Mitchell. Without him, there isn’t that fear of going over the middle, and Golden doesn’t drive downhill with the impact Mitchell does. I’m not guaranteeing Mitchell doesn’t make those plays but I like his odds much more. It’s what sent Golden to the bench. He’s solid, he’s steady, and a sure tackler, but doesn’t provide the impact he has to from his safety spot. That’s why he’s going back to the bench when Mitchell is healthy.

As Tomlin was quick to point out, the issue can always be two-fold. Rush and cover. It’s hard to even pinpoint exact issues in these examples. But the Steelers gave up some of the easiest plays you can give a QB yesterday. And they didn’t have the personnel to make up for schematic weakness.

About the Author

Alex Kozora
Full-time blogger from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • Simon Cutts

    I’m not sure Mitchell would make any difference. The D has not covered the middle of the field for a few years. It looks like scheme, not player deficiency.

  • 太阳三联

    That’s what a soft a** defense gets you. IMO, it seemed like we were playing vanilla coverages.

  • afrazier9

    If they stop with the bailout techniques they probably will at least be in the same area code of the wide receiver. I don’t understand how it is so easy, and no other team I watch give up so much space to WR they are always running wide open through our defense. You can’t tell me film study doesn’t tell you that what you are running isn’t working. I know pass rush is big but if they only send one WR out in route every one else is blocking so you are not going to get pressure SMH. I think we needed to make a change and bring in fresh eyes outside of the organization. I like butler but he is basically running the same defense that DLB ran when he was here.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    In the first example, our cover guy (Golden I believe) was minimum 10 yards off the WR who caught the pass…..

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Preseason

  • 太阳三联

    Exactly. Not really concerned.

  • john bennett

    Matty ice and hitting the receiver with an accurate throw in under 3 seconds. Hard to stop at the best off times.

  • WreckIess

    I mean, he was a FS. He wasn’t about to press up or anything.

  • DoctorNoah

    The question I have is this: with such a glaring schematic failing, can Mike Mitchell really be expected to compensate for it?

  • WreckIess

    One week of good defense followed by a week of bad. I’m not overly concerned because for one, it’s the second game of the preseason, they still only let up 13 points, and like Artie said, the defense was pretty vanilla because they didn’t want to put a lot on tape. Plus guys like Matekevich and Golden ideally won’t be getting a lot of snaps come regular season.

    Hopefully next week they’ll show better, but this isn’t really a reason to panic and I’m not going to use this one game as an indication of where the defense is going.

  • 太阳三联

    Exactly.

  • Michael James

    No need to sugarcoat it: The pass defense, especially Cockrell and Golden, was piss poor in the first half yesterday. I think Cockrell is going to be a major weakness this year. With Burns supposedly being much improved, teams will target Cockrell much more. Last year he wasn’t targeted that often, since the opponents attacked Burns most of the time. I think he’ll be exposed.
    As for Golden: Only ST from here on please. I would much rather see Dangerfield out there as backup safety #1. Golden has proven that he’s a good special teamer, but he simply isn’t a starting safety or even good backup safety.

  • cencalsteeler

    Preseason or not, imo, this article points out our biggest weakness heading into the new season. Ryan sliced through this D like hot butter and another mediocre guy named Simms almost put up 200 yards on us. Oppossing OC’s will continue to go to the “honey pot” until this gets fixed, vanilla or not.

  • SkoolHouseRoxx

    Man I wish Stafford didn’t decide to retire, maybe he could have bumped Golden off the roster.

  • Steelers12

    I can’t believe how slow cockrell is, I was genuinely happy when we got him but he has regressed

  • Marcel Chris Chauvet

    Corner blitz with your best cover guy on 3rd and long? And the guy dropping down to replace him is your worst cover guy? Coverage was awful, but so was the call.

  • Craig M

    Since it was preseason I’m more concerned w/ our Off. stats early on because the comparison between our Off. and Atlanta’s Off. brings light to out Def. inadequacy. Their Off. appeared to pretty consistently attack vertically while we seemed to throw laterally trying to create outside matchups to benefit our after catch matchups/ ability. I compare the two differences like a RB taking a hesitation at the LOS looking for the best option and wasting the forward momentum on the play instead of going balls out at the point of the blocking for the hole. If we had had a better Off. attack numbers/ production I think maybe not to much concern would have been put on our early preseason Def.. But maybe that was a good thing because in comparison we stunk up the early Off. stats comparison and maybe will adjust next game- I’m sure Haley got a more objective view from up in the box (another coach in the box is, I believe, a system NE uses too assist down on the field choice of plays on Off. and I’m sure on Def.)

  • kdubs412

    Counterpoint: It’s josh dobbs

  • Alex Kozora

    He’s not going to fix it all, clearly, but he his ability to drive downhill quicker and be a more impactful hitter gives him a lot better shot than Golden.

  • Ace

    I kept getting the feeling that they were surrounding the receivers, but not really covering them. I guess that’s the zone coverage they play. Maddening having a guy sitting in a triangle of black and gold and making an uncontested catch then getting smothered. Can’t at least on of them get within arms reach of the receiver for the love of??

  • kdubs412

    The idea that Butler was suddenly gonna get good at coaching coverage was always a fantasy. The dude is a Dick Lebeau disciple, he has no background in the type of aggressive, tight coverage that every super bowl winner from the past four years has been able to execute. On top of that it’s still not like there’s that much talent in the secondary, Golden is a huge liability and Davis has yet to prove he can cover one on one consistently. You can tell me not to overreact to the preseason and that’s fair, but seeing the Steelers absolutely overwhelmed by elite passing offenses has been a calling card of the team under Tomlin and today sure made it feel more likely than not that that’s going to continue.

  • kdubs412

    My problem is, what the hell have you been working on all camp/offseason if you are still giving guys comically free releases like the first example in this article. Either the coaches haven’t done a sufficient job changing the mindset of the players in regards to how aggressively we need to cover, or the players just aren’t skilled enough to execute it. Probably a mix of both.

  • kdubs412

    *this preseason, and every regular season in recent memory

    Fixed this for you

  • kdubs412

    Let’s be real though, the guy’s not Earl Thomas. I seriously doubt his presence is making that much of a difference when we’re getting shredded by a high powered passing offense; it certainly hasn’t in the past.

  • LA_Yinzer

    Vanilla or not our secondary got beat handily AGAIN by a good passer!!! We usually hold our own against teams with mediocre QB’s but can’t contend with better ones. We better hope our O can run the scoreboard up like a video game cause that’s exactly what good QB’s have done to us for a long while.

  • Ace

    Cockrell plays so far back its unbelievable. 12 freaking yards of cushion on first down! I mean, with Golden crashing the line anticipating run on first down, I get he has to play back, but shouldn’t he be able to recognize that there is only one receiver going out on a route and he is the only real option. Then, at that point he should know that Davis has his back no matter what and to tighten up his freaking coverage. He has literally dropped deeper than the free safety and has become the safety. And part of that could be on Davis, seems like he is stuck in no mans land just watching the play happen. Way to slow to react to the pass. I don’t know what type of coverage responsibilities and all that, but that there just seems really stupid to me. I really hope that’s just one really bad play.

  • kdubs412

    Agree on both. Golden brings absolutely nothing to the table on defense. Why the coaches continue to trot him out there is beyond me.

  • Ace

    Hey Alex, how about an article where the glass is half full? Maybe a couple examples of some good coverage? Early Monday morning still halfway through my coffee and you got me all riled up!

  • Big Joe

    Cockrell got beat several times while in and a few were significant gains. Just not acceptable. Golden showed time and again during the game why he is not a starting safety in the NFL. A good ST guy but not fast or solid enough in coverage. It will not surprise me at all to see the team draft or explore FA market for an upgrade to the position next year. I think they wanted to in both places this year but things didn’t work out during draft or when Stafford decided not to play.

  • Michael Conrad

    Its a Chinese fire drill once again. Its the circle the wagons D. I know its preseason but if you are on the field some effort is required and I think it was out there they just are not very good. I said two weeks ago .
    Where are the man CB’s on this team its not Gay and Cockrell and I’m not sure the safety play is good enough period. Davis is not a S you can use as a slot on a WR.

    I would get Hilton and Allen and Sutton if healthy some time with the ones cause the starting secondary will get chewed up. Its a copy cat leauge all teams know the Steelers don’t have an overpowering pass rush. They know they can’t play man and a good QB can sit back and WR’s will be open at the snap and also become uncovered in a very weak zone scheme.
    LOL maybe they should keep Golson around.

    The first thing you have to do when you have a problem is admit it the second is to fix. Bad drafting or a bad D coach or scheme and the wrong players its time to at least admit its a problem.

  • nitrous12

    Because Safety depth is an issue. Who else do they have?

  • kdubs412

    I’d prefer to see Dangerfield out there. Or Hilton. There is no benefit to having golden out there so it can’t hurt to try someone else.

  • Gizmosteel

    Butler must go. Been saying that since last year. He simplified LeBeau’s D but added nothing new or even remotely disguised. Why can’t we get a creative thinker? Wade Phillips would Be ideal. I’ll accept a clone.

  • kev4heels

    Mitchell is solid. This team needs an other dynamic S though.
    Everyone loves Sean Davis but I don’t see it…yet.
    He has the potential, but at this point, I just see a guy who is good finishing in the box and lacks coverage awareness.
    Guess this is why we were all over Jabril Peppers during the draft process.

  • 太阳三联

    Y’all complaining but the first gif, look how many players are stagnant and just watching? I count 4.. one of those ILB has to react quicker and drop a bit deeper, he does that and that pass is a pick. Same with the second gif, Ilb has to drop into that zone quicker, plain and simple. Luckily we have the fastest ILB in the game. I dare QBs to keep trying that and shazier gonna have 4-5 picks again this yr. Relax everybody..

  • Mister Wirez

    All the DBs brought into the organization
    since Ike Taylor retired, except Artie Burns.

    Steelers:
    1). still can’t line up and play man to man
    2). still play 15 yards off the LOS
    3). still get shredded by good QBs & coaches

    IMO Ross Cockrell is a 2nd stringer

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Last line of the article is what we’ve been saying since last year, or maybe the year before that..

  • Mister Wirez

    ^ THIS ^
    The Tom Brady’s & Matty Whatever’s are QBs that read and release way too quick. The Steelers blitzers NEVER-EVER get there.

    By the time the corner get near the QB, the ball is 30 yards down field, and the Steeler DB is CHASING the BACK of the receiver. The Steelers just don’t have the players to use this blitz properly.

  • Matt

    Couldn’t agree more. How many more times does he get to be a total liability out there. Problem is that Mitchell is the top guy and not that much better. Give Hilton a shot.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Ahhhh ok. That’s a horse of a different color.

  • hdogg48

    After yesterday’s performance, I see lots of wood to
    chop for their secondary to fall into the “pretty good” category.

    Elite?…..we’re talking light years.

    With the middle that wide open top QBs like
    Brady, Ryan, and Rogers won’t be taking what
    the Steelers D is giving them…they’ll be taking
    what they WANT!

  • Rob S.

    Safe to say Dangerfield sees the field before Golden the rest of the preseason and probably regular season?

  • Boots

    I am aware it is preseason and game planning doesn’t happen, but I’m tired of seeing guys running through the secondary as DB’s just watch them like it’s a surprise they’re there. Golden, I thought, too often showed a lack of awareness and really would ideally be the 5th safety. Cockrell plays off and gives up too much room or he comes up and lets them get behind him. He got bailed out that a WR dropped a TD. Golson and Sutton have only covered trainers tables. Can’t play man with Gay out there. I’m remembering why the draft made me mad!

  • Robert E Lil

    Ten years in with Tomlin and Steelers are yet again…still….cruising the waiver wire looking for a corner…hoping to add to the other corners they picked-up off the waiver wire.
    This is a 7 win team

  • SixburghFan

    A 7 win team, just like all of those other years, huh?

  • Robert E Lil

    No. Not just like all those other years.
    But this year.

  • AJP

    The thing I notice, even thought the throws went downfield, both sideline WR’s were open by like 10 yards. Looks like that NE defensive scheme still, Brady would have just hit on of those wide open guys 5-6 yards downfield and watched them run.

  • Michael James

    Mitchell is better than Golden by a country mile imho. He may not be an All-Pro safety, but he’s a solid starter.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    Mitchell is a better closer and plays closer to the wr and he understands routes better than Golden who is often a step behind. The first pass clearly showed golden with middle underneath coverage but he is late.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    what you prefer, and what the coaches know are two different things. people always assume it can’t get any worse. The reality is it most certainly can. Now we have people calling for Hilton to be a safety ….and he is 5’9.

  • Wil Masisak

    Not sure why Robert Golden is on this team. Yesterday, Jacob Hagen played better in his opportunities vs the same QB AND Hagen made several notable contributions all over STs. The Steelers have never really prioritized coverage skills in safeties, and the chickens have come home to roost. Even Mitchell isn’t making those plays with the frequency that good coverage safeties in the NFL do.

  • kdubs412

    I’m calling for hilton to be the dime back. It’s a spot he can play and a spot golden struggled mightily with in 2016 and yesterday.

  • Petherson Silveira

    All of those catches seems Golden´s fault to me. I don´t know his assignments, but even in the first play, he left too many space between him and the Safeties.

  • Woodsworld

    Butler is LeBeau 2.0, at best! No guts, at all. Their talent evaluation of CB’s and OLB is horrible. Ray Charles could have chosen Ryan Shazier, even though the kid that Baltimore chose is probably the better football player. Bud Dupree vs. Shane Ray? Although I like our second round pick, what we really needed in the second round was a CB.

  • kdubs412

    After Antwan Blake I no longer take any substitutions for granted

  • John Pennington

    If the steelers dont fix this its going to be a long season.Once again men running free and still knows their jobs or who to cover.None seem smart above the neck at this point and should be embarrassed.

  • John Pennington

    Just get rud if Riss and Golden cant keep carring these guys any longer move on put Allen in and give anyone a chance at safety to see what you have. then pickup someone at the cut or sign a corner and safety but do something.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Lol. There was a corner and a safety watching that guy come at them (neither was Golden) and both were too slow to do anything. How exactly was that Goldens fault from down in the box?

    As for the 2nd one it was purely on Golden because he was man v man but lets be real, who on our team outside of maybe Burns does any better?

  • Petherson Silveira

    I think Golden was responsable for carry that receiver, coz he seems to be the Curl or Hook defender. But he bites hard onto playaction and let that receiver get behind him without carry receiver.

  • Alan Tman

    I really think that first play is on the Linebackers, because they were fooled by the playaction and didn’t get into their drops. Believe me I don’t like Golden, and would take a chance with Hagen, and move Dangerfield to third safety.

  • MC

    I hope to see Dangerfield get more playing time next game. Would like to see him get a chance against 1st and 2nd teams. Golden has been around for awhile and hasn’t impressed at all other than on ST.

  • Reggie Cunningham

    I agree. We need some new blood in the secondary. Gay just don’t have it anymore. Golden never been good to me and Ross is a back up. We should have hired a def coach outside.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    he’s played quite a bit last two games and other than one big catch he trailed about a half step on i cant think of any other blunders.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    the gifs are msotly on golden. many plays in the first quarter specifically were on burns. after burns penalty at the oft, he was targeted quite a bit and was getting turned around left and right.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    hagen also whiffed on a couple big. i literally asked for hagen to be put in and then he got burned on the next play. i looked like an idiot.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    save yourself time sbf. this guy is a trollop.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    nit pick.
    light year is distance. not time. unless youre saying they have a lot of distance to go in forms of length.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    matakevich was the right side on that one. he got burned.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    swap davis and mitchells positions and we’ll be fine.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    after yesterdays game, jerry olsavsky and carnell lake have some explaining to do.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    they got shredded by all 3 matts. ryan, schaub and simms.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    i like coach butts but imagine greg williams on our staff.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    butler runs a fire zone. lebeau ran a thunder zone. difference is the safety dropping forward or back. not hard to figure out.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    with most of our starting o line for the first quarter and a half. then it got dirty.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    to be fair burns was targeted about 7 times in a row post his stupid penalty in the first quarter.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    burns got toasted yesterday first half.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    im not a fan of position switches but if thats what it takes to get hilton who did play snaps at safety yesterday. do it.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    possibly till sutton gets healthy. he was in pre game warmups running, catching and jumping.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    food for thought:
    senquez golson 5’9″ 170
    mike hilton 5’9″ 180
    mike mosgrove 5’9″ 185

    i’m not saying id revolutionize the secondary but i did stay at a hiliday inn express last night.
    *drum roll and top hat*

    ( i actually did stay at a holiday inn 3 blocks from the stadium, hah)

  • Michael Mosgrove

    i would like to see vince williams play more with fort than matakevich next time.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    point is compared to robert golden, mike mitchell IS earl thomas.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    mitchell did have to babysit burns and davis and as ive said it a thousand times. he’s an ss not an fs. putting him in at ss and davis at fs would solve more than a few problems.

  • Wil Masisak

    I just watched the first 3 or 4 series Hagen played– I didn’t see anything like you describe. Are you sure it was him? Dangerfield and Cockrell got lost on the next play right after Golden went out.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    i want to say it was mid late to third quarter. hagen was on right side ( steelers home side) from what it looked like back near steelers own end zone. knew it was hagen because i saw his number. he yielded a catch i want to say around the 15-20 yard or so ended up being yet another 3rd and 14 or something. it happened a couple different times that i noticed.

  • jsteeler

    and Robert Golden is Shamarko Thomas. lol

  • jsteeler

    Tomlin isn’t the Defense/ DB coach. Why do you chumps keep bringing up his name? That is Coach Butler & Lake. Colbert selects and Mr Rooney and Khan signs them. Coach Butler has a hard Trying to implement a scheme with the players available and some are hurt is almost impossible. I think they are doing a fantastic job. . Steeler Nation please Get off the bridges!
    2 games and 2 wins and all without Ben, Landry Jones, AB, Bell, Ayers, Harrison, Mitchell, Shazier, Sutton, Golson and Dupree As Fans we have a lot to look forward to. The defense in Pre Season is only giving up 12.5 pts per game. If this holds up in the regular season the Steelers will be in the top 5 in scoring defense. I don’t give a Sugar Honey Iced Tea about the yards. Stop them from getting in the end zone and result in kicking FG,s and I love this defense.
    So, R E L A X…. It’s only Pre season. Barring injury, It can only get better.

  • SilverSteel

    I thought it was interesting that Hilton got some Safety snaps this game. 🤔

  • SilverSteel

    It’s more about seeing the same soft, passive scheme when Gay, Cockrell play. It is concerning that they can’t play man in this league well. Changes need to be made and it’s becoming obvious.

  • SilverSteel

    And he tackles better than all our safeties combined. What’s the question? He actually played Safety snaps during that game. Think MT sees the problem? I would replace Golden with Hilton in a second if given the choice. No brainer.

  • SilverSteel

    Danger is much better than Golden and has been for about a year. It’s not even close with the eye test.

  • SilverSteel

    Lol

  • SilverSteel

    Here we go again. Will we ever learn that soft zone is useless against these quick throw offenses? I don’t get why we ever use it except for obvious situations.

  • kdubs412

    lol no he’s not earl thomas is. Mike Mitchell is still just a slightly above average safety who doesn’t generate turnovers. And he might have helped a little bit but he got just as torched as the rest of em last year against good passing teams.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    you cant really criticise mitchell for last year when he was covering for two rookies around him who didnt have a clue most of the season.

  • kdubs412

    I’m just saying he’s not close to the literal best free safety in the league. He’s fine. But he’s not an elite player at his position and his been on the field for plenty of the embarrassing defensive performances the team has had over the last three years.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    im not giving him a free pass either. but a large portion of his problems start because hes playing fs instead of ss, another portion was covering for rookies, and yet i still dont think we’ve seen what he can fully do here. that being said dangerfield offers everything he does with better speed, less penalties and better angles. which i think makes mitchell expendable next year.