How the Steelers are hanging LB Lawrence Timmons out to dry

LB Lawrence Timmons has plummeted in our grades this season; Sam Monson explains why it's a schematic issue.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Don Wright)

(AP Photo/Don Wright)

How the Steelers are hanging LB Lawrence Timmons out to dry


When Dick LeBeau left Pittsburgh, the prevailing wisdom was that Mike Tomlin would run a relatively conventional cover-2 scheme on defense. That’s the defense he was brought up in, and what everybody assumed he has always wanted to run in Pittsburgh, but ceded to LeBeau while he was there.

This season, though, we are seeing what Tomlin, with the choice of who to install as defensive coordinator, has run with, and it’s far from a vanilla cover-2.

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Here’s a look at the types of coverage the Steelers have been running this year in their new defense. While we may have expected to see a Leslie Frazier or Monte Kiffin-influenced Tampa-2 team, this unit is running far more varied things, and actually leans more to the cover-1/3 side of things.

The Steelers run a lot of man and zone, and generally operate a pretty varied and multiple defense in coverage, which is a pretty smart reflection of the way today’s NFL has gone. The Tampa-2 scheme isn’t dead; it just doesn’t function as an every-down tool the way it may have in the past. The same can be true for almost any coverage you can think of. There is no one magic coverage shell that serves as an all-purpose cure-all for the passing game, even if you have the perfect personnel to run it. Even teams that stick to one thing more than most will vary what they do down to down, and build in subtle disguises into the coverage.

Pittsburgh has run some odd things this season, and been caught more often than most teams in ugly situations, asking a lot of specific players. LB Lawrence Timmons seems to have been hung out to dry as much as anybody around the league, and it is reflected in a truly ugly grade from a player that has topped our linebacker rankings in the past.

This season, Timmons has poor grades against the run and pass, and is very close to the bottom-rated inside linebackers, rather than near the top.

Against Oakland, he was responsible for a couple of huge plays, and yet you ended up feeling bad for him given the plays the Steelers were expecting him to make, as well as the players he was being asked to run with.

On both occasions, Timmons wound up isolated on a wide receiver running deep down field.

Here’s the first play:

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Here, Pittsburgh is showing two high-safeties before the snap, but they are actually going to roll to some kind of cover-6 (or quarter, quarter, half) variant after the snap. The right corner blitzes, and one safety fills his spot covering the flat, with the other covering the deep half to that side of the field. He is the player that ends up looking foolish at the end of this play, but the responsibility lies elsewhere.

On the other side, the Steelers match up with receivers, which leaves Lawrence Timmons running the seam with Seth Roberts—a player with a 4.4 40-yard dash. Timmons gets 15-yards downfield with him before getting distracted by the dig route about to come across the field, and bails on the deeper pattern, passing Roberts off to nobody and giving Derek Carr an easy completion. The only thing saving the touchdown is Will Allen, the safety covering the deep half on the other side of the field that had just rolled away from the play, but was able to get back in time to make the tackle.

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This was a nice play by Oakland, who seemed to be able to catch the Steelers in coverages that matched up poorly with what the Raiders were running regularly in this game. Even if this had been executed perfectly by Pittsburgh, they had a major matchup advantage with Timmons trying to run step for step with a speedy receiver deep.

Needless to say, this eventually caught up with the Steelers even more, and again it was Timmons hung out to dry late in the game in a play that tied the score with a little more than a minute left on the clock.

On the TV broadcast, all we saw was Timmons desperately trailing in Michael Crabtree’s wake as he streaked downfield into the end zone. That seems like horrible planning, and it takes an All-22 look to work out exactly why it happened.

This time, Pittsburgh’s pre-snap disguise is even more elaborate. They initially line up showing a two-high safety look (like the last play), but then roll pre-snap to more of a single-high look, and then all the way back to two-high, but with a different combination of defenders deep.

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They end up again running a cover-6 variant, with Timmons being stuck covering the slot receiver deep down the middle of the field. This is very similar to the first play, and the key thing is that the route combination from the Raiders has occupied both safeties, splitting them and dragging them towards the sidelines and just expanding the amount of field Timmons has to cover one-on-one with Crabtree with every step.

At the point the ball is in the air, Timmons is defending half the field by himself on an island—against a wide receiver.

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Needless to say, this was never going to end well, and he simply couldn’t run with Crabtree all the way to the end zone. A well-thrown ball from Carr secured the touchdown, and Timmons was again left trailing the play from behind.

Sometimes defense in the NFL is about putting your players in the best position to succeed. The Steelers may not be running the vanilla Tampa-2 defense that everybody expected them to implement coming into the season, but they aren’t helping out their defenders in some of these situations, regularly asking them to execute assignments that are just completely unrealistic.

Ensuring your defense is varied enough that the offense doesn’t know exactly what is coming it good thinking, but some of what the Steelers are running this season wreaks of overthinking and simply outsmarting themselves by asking too much of the personnel they have running the plays.

Timmons was on the receiving end of these assignments in this game, and wasn’t up to the task of covering wideouts deep downfield. This isn’t surprising, but does provide some explanation as to why he is suffering through such a poorly-graded 2015 season. He may not be playing at his best, but Timmons is being hung out to dry by the Steelers scheme.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Excellent article Sam. As a coach you might have the greatest schemes ever conceived but if your asking players to execute tasks their incapable of then your might as well chuck your playbook into the trash bin.

    • Izach

      Correct you need guys who don’t make mistakes like the safeties did watching these plays is obvious Timmons was actually in good coverage on both plays but the safeties messes up

  • Tim

    *reeks of overthinking

  • Ben Anderson

    This article highlights my biggest gripe with PFF.

    “Timmons gets 15-yards downfield with him before getting distracted by the dig route about to come across the field”

    And you know that his assignment was to cover that WR all the way down the field, past the flat, and not pass him off to Will Allen how?

    YOU DON’T KNOW THEIR ASSIGNMENTS, but make judgements based upon your own subjective take on what was intended there.

    • Johnny

      You’re spot on about that play. I’m wondering what the heck Will Allen was doing. The second play though, they may have been astute with their analysis.

      • Izach

        I disagree on the second play, timmons does a good job the player who was supposed to cover for the FS (who was in a mistimed blitz) wasn’t supposed to move so far from Timmons, it should have looked more like a double coverage than it did. The Starting from the The Defensive left you have 2DBs on 2WRs that fine on the defensive right you actually have 3WRs being covered by Harrison in a flat bail Timmons in a seam zone, and a DB for the deep pattern, there should have been a DB towards the middle but he was too close to the 2WR side and not helping the LBs both of those plays were mis reads by the safety/deep cover guy and actually good coverage by Timmons to cut off the shorter throws. Both these plays do “LOOK” like Timmons is at fault hell watching it on Sunday I thought the same thing but all 22 shows on both plays Timmons should have had safety help and probably should have been big plays for our defense (one of them could have been a perfect INT if Troy was back there) but if PFF system puts those on Timmons then they are flawed there. I mean they even say how Pit left him out to dry but they can’t go deeper by attributing fault to the sfeties/ deep DBs who actuall made the mistakes because they don’t know the play call and are only guessing

      • Mike Conti

        There are NO FACTS to back up what this writer is writing about in this article when this writer criticises Timmons. STATISTICALLY, Timmons has had his best season. The Steelers don’t want to give him his huge contract that he deserves because they play favourites or are cheap as far as paying linebackers is concerned, so they get writers like this one AND MANY OTHERS to try and justify the Steelers not giving him the contract that he’s deserves, BUT they give wife beater James Harrison, AT AGE 38, a contract, even though his play isn’t as good as Timmons’ is. Follow the facts IN ANYTHING, and you can’t go wrong. You’ll be able to find out QUICKLY, the truth that so many rich people pay MILLIONS OR BILLIONS of dollars to try and cover up.

    • Brian

      Could not agree more! Analytics in football are very overrated! Sites like pff arent really that valuable to nfl teams. First off, like u said, for anyone to accurately grade a teams players, they need to work in unison with the team so that they may know the calls and responsibilities. Second, and most importantly, I’m sure nfl teams have guys in their organization, guys that are actually qualified to grade their players. The truth is analytics is a great tool for football, but it’s a small piece of the puzzle. This isn’t baseball. U cant grade tom brady’s heart and clutchness or peyton’s brain. Pff is a fun thing for us fans but unless a team is actually working in unison w them it’s rather useless to the nfl.

  • Johnny Rotten

    To be fair to the Steelers they had the right personel group to match up against the Raiders personel group, its just that the Raiders lined up their players a certain way to create a mismatch.

    The Raiders had 5 “receivers” but it was really 3 receivers, 1 RB, 1 TE. So when the Steelers did their substitutions they went with a nickel package with 3 CBs to cover the 3 receivers and 2 LBs to cover the RB and TE. The Raiders just lined up their RB and TE like they were receivers and went with an empty set as opposed to a more traditional look.

    Instead the RB was lined up like a wideout so he was covered by one of their corners. The TE was next to him in the slot so he was covered by a LB. Then the 3 “real” receivers were lined up on the other side with 2 being covered by CBs leaving the other (Crabtree) to be covered by a LB. That play was just an example of how creative offenses can create mismatches.

    • Izach

      An the Crabtree TD you can actually see Harrison run into a flat bail zone, 1 DB has the deeper route the other DB is SUPPOSED (I assume) cover the deep middle but he overreacts to the FS blitzing and covers too closely to that sideline leaving what should have been a LB underneath and DB over top shade/double on Crabtree into a poor LB(Timmons) all alone in coverage result is a TD when it easily could have been an INT or PD at least.