Goal-Line Defense An Abject Failure So Far In 2017

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the season for me so far has been the sheer ineptitude of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ goal-line defensive sub-package. They have used it on five plays this season. They have allowed five touchdowns in the package this season. No matter how bad you are at math, it’s hard not to realize that that is bad.

And it was about as bad as ever on Sunday against the Bengals. Cincinnati picked up a nine-yarder on an out route down to the one yard-line to set up fourth and one, and the Steelers countered with this sub-package, quickly allowing the score, which at the time tied the game.

For those who might not be familiar with the nuts and bolts of this package, the Steelers use four defensive linemen here and one to two extra linebackers in order to bolster their standard front seven, bringing in extra inside linebackers. They have at times used three inside linebackers and two safeties, but have mostly gone with four and one, Sean Davis being the lone safety.

On this particular play, L.T. Walton checked in at defensive tackle and L.J. Fort and Tyler Matakevich set up on the back end. Both were on the weak side of a three-tight-end set, including a tackle-eligible, facing 23 personnel with a fullback.

Both reserve linebackers bit hard on the inevitable play-action motion from quarterback Andy Dalton, at which point the weak-side tight end, Tyler Kroft, had already gotten well behind them for the pitch-and-catch score, I believe his third touchdown filling in for Tyler Eifert this season. He didn’t even sell a run block at all.

The Steelers have allowed 12 touchdowns as a defense through the first seven weeks of the season. Make no mistake, those are good numbers. But the fact that five of the 12 have all come against their goal-line defense is just straight-up ugly.

Granted, these plays always have a high chance of scoring, as they usually come from within one to three yards of the goal line. But a 100-percent failure rate on a not insignificant sample size signals that something really is just not working.

The Steelers were beat out of 23 personnel week one against the Browns, allowing DeShone Kizer to sneak around the left edge, running over Matakevich. A week later, again facing 23 personnel, they were beaten on the fullback dive, the line giving up penetration and Vince Williams mistiming a jump.

In Chicago, it was the prelude to Sunday’s score to Kroft. Rookie tight end Adam Shaheen was let loose against 23 personnel with Matakevich and Fort biting on play action. Three weeks in a row. Then Leonard Fournette leapt over the pile from two yards out.

The Steelers ran goal line one other time in Chicago. Mercifully, the Bears false started. This was at the end of the half with no time remaining, so they settled for a field goal instead. But you just know that they would have scored.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Intense Camel

    We need Big Dan.

  • Michael Putman

    “Granted, these plays always have a high chance of scoring, as they usually come from within one to three yards of the goal line.”

    And yet somehow our red zone offense struggles mightily when trying to score from within the 3 yard line…

  • NCSteel

    Good points from both Matthew
    and Michael Putman.
    The personnel package seems right. Perhaps it’s just the lack of truly experienced persons.
    Matekevich and Fort are not exactly savvy 10 year vets.

  • Thomas

    We get good penetration against the run in our 3 down look with regularity. We get run over when we get into a 4-3 look with 3 linebackers off the ball. Maybe we don’t need to bring in an extra off ball backer?

    Maybe we should just sub a DB for a lineman and leave the rest (who are in the flow of the game) on the field? Or maybe just make it a Deebo package?

  • Bryan Ischo

    “They have allowed five touchdowns in the package this season.”

    “Granted, these plays always have a high chance of scoring, as they usually come from within one to three yards of the goal line.”

    “But a 100-percent failure rate on a not insignificant sample size signals that something really is just not working.”

    You are bad at statistics. FIVE *is* an insignificant sample size and none of your arguments follow from your flawed premises.

  • Mark

    I’ll accept 5 goal line scores against our D. Bigger issue is Todd Haley’s atrocious goal line offense. We should just set up for a field goal on 1st and goal and waive the white flag.

  • CP72

    Maybe if the other teams tried lining up in 3 wr sets like we do we’d have more success stopping them.

  • PaeperCup

    Is this something Timmons was good at?

    The drastic difference from one year to another is crazy.

  • Steelerman24752

    Hey Matt what is the difference between this year and last years. Seems last year we were pretty stout. Personnel, scheme or both?

  • colingrant

    Perhaps is one and only strength is being difficult to move and block. If he is activated and dressed, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use him on 3rd or 4th and 2 or less.

  • falconsaftey43

    Except for the fact that your last statement is completely false. Steelers have scored 5 TDs on 8 plays at the 3 or closer this season. That 62.5% is 7th best in the NFL.

  • falconsaftey43

    I’m not statistician, but is 5 really insignificant? Last season the Steelers only faced 10 total plays at the 2 or closer (like these 5 plays). So pretty consistent year to year facing this scenario. Is 10 that much better of a sample size? Your logic would seem to indicate that you can draw no conclusions on goalline D performance ever because the sample size will always be too small.

    What I do know is that league wide, teams score on 49% of these plays going back to 2010. If we take that at face value of every play at the goalline has a 50/50 chance of scoring, then scoring 5 in a row (or giving up a score 5 times in a row) has only a 3.125% chance of happening (0.50^5).

  • 6 ring circus

    I love it when the facts get in the way.

  • falconsaftey43

    haha yeah, those pesky facts.
    Redzone has been poor overall, but low Redzone (closer) has been pretty good this year. 5 and closer they convert on 46.7% of plays which is 11th best. 20-5 however, they convert on 23.1% of plays which is 21st and only average 2.78 yards which is 26th. Their problem is getting close to the goalline.

  • Thomas

    Do we really need to have 4 inside linebackers on the field? I’d feel better about 2 DBs 1 extra DL and Deebo sealing one of the edges with TJ on the other (good luck collapsing that, other team’s TE) with just 2 off ball backers 😛

    I think it’s weird to have so many off ball backers when our defense does terribly against the run when we get into that offset 4-3 look, might be a similar issue.

  • still desi

    The answer is simple – play action passing. I know it’s only 2 plays down near the goal line, but on each one (Chicago and Cincy) the tight end was wide open. This happens all over the league.

    Now think to the last time Haley called a nice play action off a run fake to bell in the power I. Trust me the entire defense would sell out to stop 35-carry per game Bell and Ben would have a wide open tight end every single time. Unfortunately Haley doesn’t have this simple play in his playbook. Ironically one of the reasons the Steelers defense is so startled by play action passes down there is because they never see it in practice. Haley’s offensive game plan – the gift that keeps on giving.

  • Intense Camel

    Haley despises simple.

  • capehouse

    So much behind this. I know he’s a one-trick pony, but while Tuitt is out why the heck are they not using McCullers on short yardage and goal line situations?

  • capehouse

    It’s my biggest pet-pieve of the season. McCullers should be the guy coming in for this specialty package, not Matakevich and Fort. Run a 5-4-2 or something. Just try something different. Anything but this! Their goal line/short yardage defense has bugged me for a few years, and I know Matthew you pointed out yesterday that they weren’t all that bad last year, so maybe it was 2015, but back then they’d bring out Terence Garvin at the goal line with the other LBs, and every time it seemed like they allowed a score, because they’d go right after Garvin. It’s the same thing with Matakevich and Fort.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    week one…and then done

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    but why are forte and matekevich the backers???? How about keeping shaz and VW on the damn field. VW WAS the goal line backer last season filling in for Timmons. Shaz stayed on the field.

  • falconsaftey43

    That’s not going to change much when the problem has been the LBs mostly. Matakevich alone gave up 3 of the TDs. Twice bit on play action leaving his guy wide open, and once got run over in the hole by the QB.

  • falconsaftey43

    They are on the field too. it’s a 4-6-1
    Heyward-Walton-Hargrave-Alualu
    Watt-Matakevich-Williams-Shazier-Fort-Dupree
    Davis

    They sub a DL for one safety. Then sub two LBs for the two CBs.

  • Uncle Rico.

    Steelers D used their goalline package 13 times last year, yielding just 2 TDs.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    ok thanks for the clarification. I don’t like it but it is their baby…

  • John Pennington

    Then why are these guys still coming in and they can’t get the job done.Change up the personnel or something that works.

  • Matthew Marczi

    For a package that only sees low double-digit snaps over an entire season, a 5/5 failure rate is a statistically significant sample size. You have to consider the projected total sample size, and we are already 7/16ths of the way through a full data set.

  • Matthew Marczi

    It’s not the goal line offense that’s the problem, it’s the red zone offense. When they are at the goal line, they have done fine scoring.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I would probably surmise that he was, based only off of loose recollections.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Well, last year Timmons was there, for one thing, with Vince Williams coming in as an extra guy. Now you have Fort and Matakevich doing what Williams was doing last year. They also used more 4-5-2 with two safeties rather than 4-6-1 with one safety and six linebackers. Considering they haven’t had success stopping the run from this package anyway, I wouldn’t mind seeing them go back to using two safeties.

  • Matthew Marczi

    No, they don’t need 4 ILBs. In fact, they had more success with 5 LBs and 2 Ss than they have in this 4-6-1 look.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Do you have the plays on which this package was run charted? Alex’s charting from last year has only 9 snaps out of the goal-line package, so I’m wondering if we’re missing instances. Please share if you have it.

  • Uncle Rico.

    Not readily. I could probably reverse engineer it. A couple/few probably shouldn’t be characterized as goalline, but rather short yardage. They had 5 instances last year with 3 DL, 3 ILB, 2 OLBs, and 3 DBs. But I don’t think all of those were goalline. 7 plays with 4 DL, 3ILBs, 2 OLBS, and 2 DBs. And 1 play with 1 DB and a 4th ILB. Still, whether it was 13 or 11 or 10, they only gave up at most 2 TDs. Maybe just 1.

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    I really don’t understand the decision to have Tyler on the field in these circumstances. As you said, he’s been terrible.

  • #beatthepats

    Not enough beef up front, they need to use 5 or 6 defensive lineman , not linebackers on the line of scrimmage. They dress to many linebackers not enough defensive lineman .

  • Bryan Ischo

    On average, if every team has the same 50/50 odds, then one out of 32 will go 0/5 on goal line stops. The Steelers are well within the odds of just being the unlucky team out of the 32 teams in the NFL that has the same 50/50 odds as any other team (i.e. just as good a goal line defense as any other), but just happened to go 0/5.

    That being said, your 49% statistic does put things into better perspective … and yeah, it does seem more likely that they Steelers are just bad at goal line defense than unlucky.

  • Bryan Ischo

    Yeah I think you are right. Sorry to have jumped the gun on that one.

  • Steeldog22

    Yeah. I think the Kroft play and the Shaheen play were basically the same play biting on both. Fool you once….

  • capehouse

    Yup, would love to see a line of Tuitt, Alualu, McCullers, Hargrave, Heyward for all 3rd/4th down short yardage and goal line plays.

  • #beatthepats

    Im with you!