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Surprises from Villanueva, Hubbard, and why A.B. is the best WR in game

Jon Ledyard breaks down tape of Steelers' convincing win over Jets.

* The Steelers have struggled to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks this season by simply winning 1v1 matchups, so defensive coordinator Keith Butler has picked up the creativity in his pass-rush approach. The team has used some twists to try and confuse offensive lines and sneak a free rusher into the pocket, but the results have been overwhelmingly disappointing so far this season. On Sunday the team ran a TOM twist early in the game, which involves the 3-technique crashing the A gap while the nose tackle jams the center and loops around behind his teammate to attack the B gap. The problem is that it was Arthur Moats lined up as a pseudo 3 technique attempting to crash inside and open up space for Cam Heyward.

This strategy is one that Butler has gone to often this season, despite its many failures due to two reasons. First, Stephon Tuitt and Heyward would be far better equipped to run this type of twist, as Moats simply doesn’t have the power to create that kind of disruption and open an inside rush lane by himself. Second, that alignment tips off the opposing offensive line to expect a twist, taking away the vital element of surprise for a defense. The Jets handled these games easily on Sunday, which should force Butler to re-evaluate some of his personnel usage in these situations.

* The Steelers don’t typically run a ton of dart scheme blocking in Todd Haley’s offense, and I’m sure the Jets weren’t expecting to see it without Marcus Gilbert in the lineup. Pittsburgh may have surprised them by running dart with Al Villanueva, the first time I’ve seen the second-year tackle utilized in that fashion. Dart is a blocking scheme with combo and base blocks on the playside, while the backside tackle pulls around to kick out a second level playside defender, usually the WILL linebacker. Villanueva performed his task well, and the result was a six-yard gain on third-and-1 for Le'Veon Bell.

* The Steelers again showed a 3x1 look with the in-line tight end isolated backside, a look that led to great success against Kansas City the week prior (I wrote about it here). With Calvin Pryor playing well off Xavier Grimble, the big tight end ran a crisp out route to pick up 11 yards and a first down. The early returns on the Steelers 3x1 with a tight end backside looks have been very encouraging, so we might see this formation become a staple of Haley’s offense.

* Haley loves to use spot routes down near the goal line, a combination of a curl-corner-flat between three receivers. The concept worked Jesse James free for an easy touchdown on the Steelers' game-changing, go-ahead drive late in the first half, as Bell ran a flat out of the backfield that attracted two defenders. All James had to do was carry his route a step further to the middle of the end zone, and Ben Roethlisberger was able to hit him easily for a touchdown.

Chris Hubbard got very little help throughout the game, suggesting that Pittsburgh not only trusted him at the position, but became emboldened by his strong play as the game went on. Early on Haley was using plenty of quick passes and three-step drops to get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands quickly, but as the game went on and the Jets lack of pressure became more evident, the Steelers offensive coordinator began using longer-developing route combinations to attack New York down the field. Hubbard continued to excel, putting the clamps on Muhammad Wilkerson to such a degree that the defensive lineman barely sniffed the pocket.

One of the biggest tests for Hubbard, which he admitted after the game, was handling the plethora of twists that Todd Bowles loves to throw at opponents. Hubbard credited David DeCastro’s communication as a key component to the duo’s success, but Hubbard was excellent in his technique and posture, keeping active eyes to pick up late loopers to the outside. Given his lack of experience at the position, and his less than stellar showings in recent preseason action, it is fair to say that Hubbard’s performance definitely shocked me, especially considering the caliber and creativity of his opponent.

* There are so many reasons why Antonio Brown is, in my opinion, the best wide receiver in football, but one of the biggest is his elite awareness of spacing and coverages as a route runner. He’s the ultimate improvisor working to take advantage of a defense’s soft spots, a trait he exhibited on tape during his fourth-quarter touchdown catch on Sunday. With Marcus Gilchrist racing to cut off Brown’s drag route, the receiver quickly pivoted back to the middle of the field, lost Gilchrist as the cornerback fell down attempting to recover, and settled between two underneath defenders for a well-timed pitch-and-catch with Roethlisberger for six.


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