Know Your Enemy: Pittsburgh Steelers Offense
I’ll be far from the first person to say so this week, but this Ravens-Steelers contest doesn’t feel quite right. Neither team has a winning record, and the power structure in the AFC North has shifted – especially for Pittsburgh, who just recorded their first win of the season last weekend. Baltimore, of course, is coming off a tough loss to Green Bay in which the offense continued to struggle (at least for the first three quarters). I went to the tape to see what the Ravens should expect from the Steelers. For any fans who expect to see a blowout in Heinz Field, I think you may be disappointed. This Steelers team isn’t as bad as advertised, and in fact, many of their strengths match up with Baltimore’s weaknesses.
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Pittsburgh is the sixth-lowest scoring team in the league so far this season, averaging just 17.6 points per game. The only teams faring worse are Oakland, both New York teams (this amuses me for some reason), Tampa Bay, and Jacksonville. Not exactly lofty company. But the stats don’t tell the whole story. After struggling mightily in the first two weeks, during which the Steelers scored just 19 points, Pittsburgh has outscored its average over the last three games – including outings against the Bears and Jets defenses.
I personally think a large part of Pittsburgh’s early struggles had to do with Heath Miller’s health. The veteran TE was absent from the first two games but returned in week three. Miller doesn’t post gaudy numbers, but his impact really shows on tape. Whenever a play breaks down and Roethlisberger is forced to improvise, it’s nearly always Miller who finds a way to get open. He often makes drive-saving catches, even if he isn’t scoring many touchdowns.
Roethlisberger, for his part, has started off strong again this season. He’s not on quite the same pace as 2012 – when he threw 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions before getting hurt in week 9 – but he’s still playing at a high level. For some reason, Big Ben seems to get lost in the mix when NFL pundits talk quarterbacks. The focus is (often rightfully) on Manning, Brady, and Rodgers, occasionally Brees, and then the subset of young QBs: Griffin, Wilson, Kaepernick, and Luck. But Roethlisberger hasn’t gone anywhere, folks. He’s still posting top-10 rankings in PFF’s adjusted accuracy percentage, accuracy under pressure, and deep ball accuracy. His traditional numbers may not be gaudy, but he’s still very skilled at avoiding sacks, moving in the pocket, and improvising when a play breaks down (these have been important skills this year, as Pittsburgh’s offensive line is a borderline disaster).
Meanwhile, Mike Wallace’s departure has allowed Antonio Brown to start shining. He’s clearly the best receiver on the Steelers roster, and the team does all it can to get the ball in his hands (see more on that below). On film, he looks quick and sure-handed. According to PFF, Brown drops just 2.38% of the catchable balls thrown his way – good for 7th best in the NFL. (Ravens bonus stat: Torrey Smith has yet to drop a catchable ball thrown his way). Finally, Emmanuel Sanders has elite speed, and he will put constant pressure on Baltimore’s outside corners, who absolutely can’t let him get behind the defense. Discipline against play action will be vital in this contest. In games against the Jets and Vikings, more than one cornerback got caught looking in the backfield and let Sanders slip past, resulting in a touchdown for Pittsburgh.
The Steelers have run a significant portion of their offense out of jumbo and two TE sets this year. They have three tight ends that have played 75+ snaps, and their top two – Miller and David Paulson – have both played at least half of the team’s offensive snaps. Meanwhile, they’ve had a fullback on the field for greater than 20% of offensive snaps.
However, the Steelers aren’t just pounding the ball between the tackles every time they’re in a jumbo set. I took a look at the variety of plays the Steelers have run out of jumbo and two TE formations:
Here, the Steelers line up with two TEs stacked on the left. Running back Felix Jones and Fullback Will Johnson are initially in an I-formation. Pre-snap, Johnson goes in motion and moves to a blocking back position on the left. The Steelers offense uses a lot of motion, often moving TE Heath Miller around, but the FB and WR Antonio Brown were also put in motion a lot. My scouting note for the day is that whenever Miller went in motion but returned to his original spot, the Steelers often ran the ball right behind him on that play.
But I digress. In the play above, Felix Jones is going to run through the A gap on the open side of the formation. The jumbo set gives the Steelers the ability to call numerous running plays that all look pretty much the same pre-snap. Which leads to…
In the first half of their contest against the Jets, the Steelers mostly ran out of the jumbo set. But in the third quarter, Pittsburgh started to use play action from the same formation, and as you can imagine, it was effective. In the image above, FB Will Johnson is lined up as a wingback and RB Le’Veon Bell is the lone back. Roethlisberger is going to fake the handoff to Bell, who runs out into the flat. FB Johnson gets behind the near safety on a seam route. The pass winds up incomplete, as Roethlisberger faced immediate pressure, but the concept worked.
The Steelers also pass the ball out of their heavy sets (even though this pass is essentially a run alternative). Here, they’re lined up in a two-TE set with WRs Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders initially on the left, and RB Felix Jones in the backfield. Sanders goes in motion across the formation and then catches a screen pass. Some good blocking from the tight ends and agile running from Sanders net the Steelers a first down.
The variety of plays Pittsburgh calls from its jumbo and two-TE sets makes it an effective formation for them, and helps them to mitigate some of the line play issues they’ve had this year.
Antonio Brown Trick Plays
As I said before, the Steelers are doing everything they can to get the ball in Antonio Brown’s hands, as he’s undoubtedly their best playmaker. Below is a sampling of the trick plays Pittsburgh called against the Jets and Vikings. Some worked to perfection, while one ended poorly for Pittsburgh. Regardless, the Ravens will need to be ready for this wrinkle in the Steelers’ offense. I have no doubt Tomlin wants to test the new-look Baltimore defense with his multi-talented wide receiver.
This is your classic end-around. At the top of the screen, the WR is going to block his man toward the sideline. TE Heath Miller, on the left side of the line, is going to seal off the strong-side linebacker with a little help from the center, who chips the SAM and then takes on the MIKE. Brown uses his agility to turn this into a first down run. I don’t know that Brown is as fast as Sanders in a straight line, but Brown is extremely impressive in space. He’s agile and flexible, and he makes a lot of people miss.
This is a pretty awesome wrinkle in the Pittsburgh offense. In the first image, you see the Steelers in their two-TE set again. WR Antonio Brown is lined up to the offensive right. Sanders, at the top of the screen, is going to run a clear-out route, and RB Felix Jones is going to look to chip a rusher then slant out toward the numbers for a pass.
In image 2, you see Brown go in motion. Roethlisberger takes the snap and pitches it to him. Ben will then turn and put a block on the weakside DE. In image 3, you see Jones slip behind the DE. Antonio Brown is about to pass the ball to Jones, who has an impressive amount of space around him. Seriously, look at that. And finally, in image 4, you see Jones has worked his way to the sideline for a big gain.
Trick play fail
However, all trick plays are not created equal. In image 1, you see WR Antonio Brown aligned to the left of the formation. This time, the Steelers are in a 3WR set with RB Le’Veon Bell lined up as a blocking back on the weak side of the formation. In image 2, you see Brown go in motion and take a pitch from Roethlisberger while the line zone blocks to the right.
In image 3, everything goes south. It’s hard to know what the exact playcall here was… maybe Brown was supposed to run behind his line. Maybe he was supposed to pass to Emmanuel Sanders, who is well covered. Regardless, Brown turns around and runs back toward the offensive left, and that’s the beginning of the end for him. There are few blockers to run behind and there’s no one to throw to on that side of the field. Ultimately, Brown is tackled for a 7-yard loss, as you can see in image 4.