Scouting for Steelers, Part II: Defensive Front

Nate Guldry/Post-Gazette

As I explained in Part I, I decided to go back and review the Steelers/Lions games from the standpoint of a scout, since the Steelers are clearly setting up their game plan with the idea of winning it as a very secondary concern. So let’s look at some of the guys on the bubble in the defensive front.

The first question is, who was getting the playing time, and where? I would go through and figure it out myself except that there’s no need to duplicate the fine work done by Dave Bryan at Steelers Depot. The big questions are, 1. Who starts at nose tackle in the 3-4 alignment, 2. Who backs up Tuitt and Heyward, and 3. Who plays in the sub-packages?

Let’s see if we can achieve any clarity from the usage vs. the Eagles:

  • Javon Hargrave: 25 defensive snaps, 5 ST snaps
  • Caushad Lyons: 25 defensive snaps
  • Devaunte Sigler: 20 defensive snaps
  • Ricardo Mathews: 16 defensive snaps, 12 ST snaps
  • Lavon Hooks: 15 Defensive snaps, 3 ST snaps
  • Giorgio Newberry: 13 defensive snaps, 3 ST snaps
  • Johnny Maxey: 11 defensive snaps, 3 ST snaps
  • Daniel McCullers: 9 defensive snaps
  • Khaynin Mosley-Smith: 3 defensive snaps
  • Stephon Tuitt: 15 defensive snaps
  • Cameron Heyward: 15 defensive snaps

I included Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt for interests sake, but won’t be discussing them, as there are no questions about who are the starting defensive ends. Both by seniority and ability they are the unquestioned starters. Beyond that I’m prepared to say there is no clarity whatsoever, at least for the casual observer.

As I watched each defensive snap I came up against a frustration and a conundrum. The frustration is how difficult it can be to figure out who is lined up along the defensive front. The first problem is the difficulty of seeing the jersey numbers. There were some downs where I never did figure out which guys were on the right end, and sometimes even the left end or middle. The conundrum is, Keith Butler is messing with my head.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that we are seeing some hybrid or 4-3 fronts. But as far as I could tell they seldom lined up in a classic 3-4. Butler used a 4-man front frequently, although he occasionally sent someone running in at the last minute to make it five across. I was looking to compare Daniel McCullers and Javon Hargrave in particular, but several of McCullers snaps came next to Hargrave. In fact the last three snaps of the first half were four-man fronts with McCullers on the left and Hargrave on the right. It appeared to always be Travis Feeney at the right end and Jordan Zumwalt at the left end. I’d like to say this was effective, but the results were pass, 17 yard gain; pass, 6 yard gain, and pass, incomplete. The latter appeared to be a combination of pressure and coverage.

But to return to McCullers, he took exactly two snaps as a nose tackle, on a 2nd and 6 early in the second quarter, and on a 1-10 at 9:13 in the second quarter. In the first instance he had pushed his offensive lineman all the way back to Sam Bradford’s lap, but Bradford just managed to get the pass off for an 8-yard gain. The second time was even more effective—Arthur Moats got a 12-yard sack. In both cases McCullers was lined up with Tuitt to his left and Heyward to his right, and Moats and Harrison at OLB. Which certainly makes it look like McCullers is the anointed starter in a classic 3-4, at any rate.

Other than that, Big Dan lined up in a four-man front, either with Hargrave, as he did at the end of the first half, or with some combination of the starters. He had either Cam Heyward or Stephon Tuitt to his right, and either Arthur Moats or Stephon Tuitt to his left. James Harrison was always at the right end in this alignment.

Javon Hargrave was in for most of the second quarter after the series which ended around two minutes in. In the series beginning at 11:29 in the second quarter, he generally lined up with Moats, Tuitt, and Heyward. The results of his first three snaps?  Pass for 17 yards, run for 7 yards, QB scramble for 1 yard. He got better as he went along.

By 2:26 in the second quarter Butler was giving his best mad scientist imitation, mixing up guys and seeing what came out. Tuitt, Heyward, Moats and Harrison were on the bench, and he started looking at the guys farther down the depth chart. A favorite alignment was Jordan Zumwalt, Hargrave, Ricardo Mathews, and Travis Feeney. As you might suspect, this combination didn’t get anything like the push up the middle as some combination of Tuitt, Heyward, Harrison, Moats, and McCullers.

This is both interesting (to me at least) and amazingly time-consuming, so I’m going to look at the second half, in which the true bubble guys got playing time, in the next post.

to be continued


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