It was a brutal game for newly-promoted rookie Artie Burns, who moved to first-team nickel Sunday and pushed Sean Davis back to second-team safety. Burns was awful in run defense, twice missing opportunities to set the edge in crack/replace situations. The Steelers love to bring Robert Golden into the box for extra run support, so Miami countered by cracking the defender with a wide receiver to gain the edge. The simple adjustment by Pittsburgh is for Burns and the other CB, Ross Cockrell, to replace Golden as the force defender, something both corners failed to do frequently on Sunday.
Cockrell attempted to do his job twice, once whiffing on a tackle, and the next getting carried 10 yards by the ballcarrier. Burns looked lost on a pair of opportunities, even drifting inside rather than racing up to set the edge. Not only was the rookie’s execution poor, but his ability to diagnose and support the run was completely non-existent. That can’t continue in upcoming weeks or the Steelers run defense will continue to be gashed.
Burns also lost Jarvis Landry in his cover-3 zone and allowed a 39-yard pass play early in the game to give the Dolphins a first-and-goal. Miami used a switch vertical concept to stress Burns’ positioning, but Mike Mitchell picked up the No. 2 receiver perfectly down the seam. Burns has to pick up anything down the sideline in that situation, but he drifted too far inside and couldn’t recover in time to break up an excellent grab by Landry.
- You expect Burns to blow an assignment here and there as a rookie, but not William Gay. The Steelers cornerback was a big culprit on Sunday as well, losing Dolphins tight end MarQueis Gray on a 53-yard bomb in the first half. With the Steelers playing cover-3, Gay inexplicably paused and allowed Gray to get behind him down the field, perhaps because he believed QB Ryan Tannehill had been finished off by Daniel McCullers’ bullrush. But Tannehill escaped and launched a pass over the head of the Steelers veteran corner and gave the Dolphins another goal-to-go situation. Some strange and ugly lapses in coverage on Sunday, despite the Steelers being in their oft-used cover-3 on both of Miami’s big pass plays.
- Much of Miami’s success on the ground came as a result of poor run defense by the Steelers corners, but they were far from the only culprits. Vince Williams had a rough day on the second level, failing to key-and-diagnose effectively on several plays, and even missing a few tackles. Lawrence Timmons was clearly laboring throughout the day, even vomiting on the field at one point, and was as easily blocked as I’ve ever seen him during his time here.
On Jay Ajayi’s 62-yard dagger touchdown at the end of the game, outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo spiked inside, running a scrape/replace with Timmons flowing over top to the edge. Timmons hesitated, however, perhaps thinking about the cutback, and ended up being easily sealed inside by a tight end due to his slow reaction. It’s uncommon to see Timmons look so feeble, and I can only guess his sickness was significantly holding him back by that point in the game.
- We could write about the failures of the Steelers run defense all day, but the reality is this was a 16-8 game with two minutes left in the third quarter, and a 23-8 game for most of the final quarter. As troubling as some of the defensive errors were, the offense has far less excuses, especially considering the fact that the close score should have allowed them to keep the playbook wide open. Instead, Le'Veon Bell received only two carries in the second half, an absolutely inexcusable error in playcalling that put the onus on Ben Roethlisberger to carry a one-dimensional offense on his bum knee. Roethlisberger was terrible, but with the success Pittsburgh was having on the ground against the 31st-ranked run defense in the NFL, Todd Haley deserves criticism for abandoning the run too quickly, especially in a few key moments of the game.
- The Steelers have experimented with some faux 4-3 looks over the past two seasons, and went to the front a few times on Sunday. It seems like Chickillo is typically the outside linebacker who drops off the ball, which suggests to me that Pittsburgh feels confident about his key-and-diagnose ability, as well as his coverage skills when called upon.
- Javon Hargrave’s performance was far from perfect, but he made some highly impressive plays against the run when he was on the field. Mike Pouncey’s day was made much more eventful because of Hargrave’s presence inside, especially on zone runs, in which the athletic defensive lineman took away a few cutback runs with his ridiculous agility.
- Tyler Matakevich may have led the Steelers defense in tackles despite just 18 snaps, but the tape reveals more of a mixed performance than anything else. The rookie failed to recover in coverage on a play-action rollout play in the fourth quarter, and at times looked limited in his range. But he did make a couple nice plays from the backside when the run was opposite him. I think he’d be fine as a run defender with a little more experience, but he might always be susceptible in coverage, which is now an essential area of the game for any linebacker in an NFL defense. Little bit strange that L.J. Fort wasn’t playing instead of Matakevich, especially given the fact that earlier in the year the journeyman linebacker was even seeing the field before Williams on occasion.
- Alejandro Villanueva has been ravaged by the bull rush this season, and opponents are going to keep going to it against his skyscraping frame. Until he learns to play with better bend and keep pass rushers off his chest, he’ll continue to be the weak link of the Pittsburgh offensive line.
- It’s not even midseason, but the Steelers' top two areas of need in the 2017 draft/offseason already look painfully obvious: left tackle and outside linebacker. The lack of pass rush is killing this team, and I’m not sure Villanueva is more than a stopgap in the starting lineup. Will Jerald Hawkins be ready next year? If my pre-draft analysis of the LSU tackle is any indication, I doubt it.