It’s not often the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense picks off four passes. In fact, it was just the third time they’ve done it in a game since 1998. So when it occurs you know we have to write about it. Four different defenders came away with the football yesterday: S Minkah Fitzpatrick, OLB T.J. Watt, CB Cam Sutton, and CB Ahkello Witherspoon.
We don’t yet have All-22 but I wanted to offer a brief breakdown and overview of how they made each four of those plays happen. Let’s dive into the tape.
First one. The biggest one. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pick-six to get the party started. Cover 2 defense, a two-deep, five under zone scheme. Bengals are basically running a version of their smash concept (curl/7 combination), something we wrote about in our preview of their offense. One of their staple schemes.
Here, QB Joe Burrow reads the depth of the outside CB. If he sinks, throw the underneath. If he sits, throw deep on the 7-route. On this play, the Bengals’ #1 receiver doesn’t run an exact curl but a short slant designed to hold the CB and prevent him from sinking and getting depth.
Smash puts a lot on the safety to cover from his landmark (top of the numbers) and asks him to drive to the sideline. But Burrow’s throw is late and behind and Fitzpatrick displays great eyes to read and break on this one better than the receiver, who has his back turned until coming out of his break. He finishes the play with the catch and interception into the end zone.
Second one. T.J. Watt’s pick. As he’s done so many times, Watt reads Burrow’s three-step drop and instead of rushing, which he’s designed to do, he stops and reads Burrow’s arm and shoulder. Times it well, gets his hands up, and doesn’t just bat the ball down here as he did earlier in the game. Here, he picks it, thwarting a potential Bengals’ scoring drive.
Third one. Split coverage here. Fitzpatrick rolled to the bottom of the screen against Ja’Marr Chase, bracketing him with LCB Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon plays trail technique underneath/inside with Fitzpatrick playing anything vertical and over the top.
It’s a little hard to tell man or zone but at the least, this is a zone-match by the cornerbacks and without safety help over the top, SS Terrell Edmunds is an underneath Robber, they’re responsible for anything vertically. Sutton matches slot receiver Tyler Boyd down the seam.
On the snap, Sutton’s aligned with outside leverage and Boyd freely releases inside. But Sutton does a great job to regain leverage and undercut the route. It’s a great hands catch to reach above his head and make the play. Looked like a wide receiver here.
Last one. Fourth down pick by CB Ahkello Witherspoon. Again the Steelers are in Cover 2. Two deep, five under with a four man rush. Witherspoon is in more of a slot alignment here, aligned inside over #2 with TE Drew Sample aligned out wide as #1. Terrell Edmunds walks out with him to be the outside corner.
Witherspoon is the hook zone defender on this play, playing any sort of hitch or in-breaking route into his window. Tyler Boyd tries to settle down away from CB Arthur Maulet and sit between him and Witherspoon. But Witherspoon has good eyes the whole way and Burrow’s throw is too tight, juggled but picked off by Witherspoon. Good break on the ball and feel for the route.
We can argue over if Witherspoon should’ve caught the ball, it was 4th down and the pick actually cost them a fair amount of yards. But I can’t get too mad about a guy making the play and not potentially being hesitant only going for the breakup.
While the makeup of each interception is a little different, the common theme here are really good eyes. These weren’t gimmie plays. There’s things I’m sure the Bengals would like to have back but Pittsburgh showed good vision on the ball and an aggressive mentality doing it. They understood route combinations and situation. Fitzpatrick reading the corner route on the smash concept, Watt reading Burrow’s drop, Witherspoon anticipating something quicker around the sticks on 4th down.
Impact plays the Steelers needed. Taking potential points off the Bengals’ board and keeping the score down until the Steelers could find a way to pull the game out in the final seconds. With the offense still sputtering, Pittsburgh’s secondary will need to keep making those plays going forward. It’ll be tougher without T.J. Watt but the IQ showed in this secondary doesn’t go away just because Watt does.