How the Steelers Were Able to Shut Down Matthew Stafford in 2nd Half of Week 11

Curt PopejoyContributor INovember 4, 2016

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 17: Calvin Johnson #81 of the Detroit Lions can't come with a fourth quarter pass in the end zone while being covered by Ryan Clark #25 and Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on November 17, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 37-27. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

If there is a single area to point at in the Pittsburgh Steelers 37-27 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, it was the halftime adjustments the Steelers made on defense.

Want a better understanding of just how lopsided the two halves were? Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Russell S. Baxter put it out there in this tweet.

NOT LION: #Lions: 379 total yards in first half, 72 total yards in second half in 37-27 loss to #Steelers on Sunday #NFL

—Russell S. Baxter (@BaxFootballGuru) November 17, 2013

So, what was the big difference between the two halves? The changes were subtle but effective, and they allowed the Steelers' defense to dictate the tempo and to some degree the play-calling in the second half.

To give a clearer picture of just how this happened, let's take a look at two very similar plays, one from each half, that had very different results.

NFL Game Rewind

The Lions come out in 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end) with star wide receiver Calvin Johnson at the top of the formation. The Steelers have cornerback Ike Taylor in tight coverage, which would assume he has help over the top. And the alignment appears to show that as well, with one deep safety, Ryan Clark, shaded to his side.

I've marked safety Will Allen in red because it's important to show what he does on this play as opposed to a later play in the second half. I've indicated safety Troy Polamalu in yellow, showing that he continues to be relegated to playing the role of an extra linebacker in the box, even against pass-heavy formations. 

NFL Game Rewind

What we see at the snap is Taylor is playing outside technique and giving Johnson the inside. This again tells me that the safety Clark is helping inside. This point is made even more evident when Allen makes no attempt to drop at the snap and instead goes into man coverage.

However, Clark instead chooses to undercut Johnson and take the intermediate receiver, leaving no inside help on Johnson. Quarterback Matthew Stafford recognizes this immediately and hits Johnson deep downfield.

However, in the second half, the lions have a very similar play call out of a slightly different formation. This time the Steelers are ready for it.

NFL Game Rewind

This time the Lions are operating out of the shotgun with similar personnel and have put Johnson inside. The set up looks different, but the goal is basically the same. The Lions are hoping they get Johnson behind the cornerback, while forcing the safety to commit to the outside receiver.

However, it doesn't work that way this time around. 

NFL Game Rewind

The pre-snap look the Steelers give isn't really any different than on the long reception. But at the snap, Allen immediately starts to retreat and assume deep middle responsibility. The Steelers defensive backs on Johnson's side are bracketing him and, for the most part, running with him.

Nonetheless, it's Allen who makes the play. Stafford is hanging in, waiting for Johnson to clear out, and it certainly looks like he never sees Allen coming from the other side. Nevertheless, if Allen doesn't come back for the interception, there's still a very good chance that Stafford is able to lead Johnson enough that he can make a play on the football.

Want to know just how effective these subtle changes were in the second half as it pertains to Johnson? TribLIVE radio host Ken Laird shared this during the game:

Calvin Johnson was targeted only three times in the 2nd half (no catches) after 10 first half targets (6 catches-179 yards)

—Ken Laird (@Ken_Laird) November 17, 2013

It's impossible to quantify just how much impact these little changes had, but I have belabored the point all season that the success of this defense is dictated by the play and positioning of the safeties.

Week 11 was no different. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau flashed a little magic and showed the rest of the league that just because he is 76 years old doesn't mean he can't still coach.