On Sunday night, the Steelers clinched the AFC North with another last-minute classic. Ben Roethlisberger became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 500 yards on 3 separate occasions. Antonio Brown had 213 yards receiving and was all but uncoverable. Le’Veon Bell added 3 touchdowns. The Steelers are an offensive juggernaut and nearly unstoppable with the Killer B’s healthy and on the field at the same time. Despite the 39 points, though, Pittsburgh did have a bit of a rollercoaster performance on offense. In those ups and downs, we learned plenty about how they respond to various defensive approaches.
In the first half, the Steelers offense completely controlled the game. They scored on all 4 of their possessions (2 touchdowns and 2 field goals). Roethlisberger was 19-26 (2 incompletions were spikes), for 220 yards and a touchdown. Yes, the weapons at Ben’s disposal helped enable that performance. The time he had to scan the field and deliver the ball was a more significant factor, though. The Ravens were barely able to get any pressure on Roethlisberger, their 2 coverage sacks not-withstanding. Whether Baltimore played man or zone, Ben had time to decipher the coverage and make the correct throw – and he made the correct throw almost every time.
Something happened on the way to halftime, though. The Ravens realized they HAD to get to Roethlisberger. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees started dialing up the pressure. This slowed down the Steelers offense at the end of the first half. It completely thwarted them in the 3rd quarter, when Pees unloaded what seemed like every blitz he had in his playbook. Defenders came from far away and unlikely places – places the O-line and Roethlisberger didn’t recognize or account for until it was too late. The coverage behind those blitzes was heavily disguised as well. The play below illustrates both of these concepts.
See that guy with the circle around him? That’s safety Tony Jefferson. He will be the free rusher influencing this play. This is his alignment a few moments before the snap. He is initially more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, out of the protection’s concern, before starting to creep up late in Roethlisberger’s cadence.
From the end-zone angle, you can see how the Steelers accounted for the Ravens pass rush. 5 offensive linemen to block 4 down linemen and the middle linebacker, and a running back to pick up the 6th potential rusher. Tony Jefferson was Roethlisberger’s responsibility if he blitzed.
At the snap, the Ravens dropped two of those potential rushers out, and ended up blitzing 5.
Due to Baltimore’s initial alignment and Pittsburgh’s protection rules, blitzing safety Tony Jefferson had a free path to Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger saw Jefferson blitz and wanted to get rid of the ball quickly to his tight end, Jesse James. He didn’t see linebacker C.J. Mosley, initially aligned in a pass rushing position over the center, dropping out underneath James’s route.
Going back to the sideline view, you can see that Roethlisberger ended up making an off-balanced pass despite having room to step into the throw.
This is what intricate blitz pressure can do. Roethlisberger rushed the throw and didn’t see Mosley dropping underneath James’s route. The result was an incompletion on 3rd down, and almost a big mistake by Roethlisberger.
None of this led to disaster for the Steelers, necessarily. But they were stopped in their tracks on their first 3 possessions of the 3rd quarter. This enabled Baltimore to catch up and eventually take a double-digit lead.
So how did the Steelers offense still finish with 39 points? First, they started hitting big plays vs the blitz. Protection started becoming more familiar with Baltimore’s blitzes. Le’Veon Bell did a nice job on several occasions of not being fooled by the Ravens’ blitz schemes and correctly picking up the the pass rusher he was responsible for. Roethlisberger became firmer in the pocket with the confidence that he would be protected. On one particular play, right guard David DeCastro came off his man and picked up a free rusher, giving Big Ben enough time to hit Antonio Brown for a 60-yard gain.
Perhaps the Ravens were somewhat a victim of circumstances as well. The Ravens took a 9-point lead with under 7 minutes to go in the game. For just the blink of an eye, they relaxed. They aligned in coverages meant to prevent the big play. While Baltimore still disguised their coverages, they backed off on the blitzing. The Steelers marched 68 yards in 3 minutes and 15 seconds to pull within 2.
On their final drive, Baltimore started dialing up the pressure once again. The Steelers struggled against the blitz on the first two plays of the drive, but then Ben hit tight end Jesse James for 16 yards on 3rd-and-13. Le’Veon Bell again did a nice job of recognizing where the free rusher was coming from on this play. This thwarted the pressure before it had a chance to impact Roethlisberger.
However, the play of the game came three snaps later. With 1 minute and 8 seconds remaining, the Steelers faced a 3rd-and-4 from their own 36. At the snap, the Ravens were once again showing pressure. On the bottom of the screen, you can see that cornerback Brandon Carr was matched up on Antonio Brown.
Based on the fact that this was such a pivotal situation, and because the Ravens had 2 defenders accounting for Antonio Brown on every prior play on this drive, Roethlisberger had to be thinking Baltimore would double-up on Brown again. He was wrong. The Ravens ended up playing 2-man. That’s man coverage with 2 safeties helping out over the top. You can see below the five 1-on-1 matchups, with two deep safeties. Shockingly, the safeties were shading to the side of the field away from Brown, leaving him in a pure 1-on-1 situation.
Mismatch. In all fairness, Roethlisberger did look down the middle of the field where he had Martavis Bryant on a safety, which is also an advantageous matchup for the Steelers.
Ben’s eyes and the mismatch could have both been good reasons for the safety to Brown’s side shading towards the middle of the field. But this is Antonio Brown we’re talking about here! The result was a very advantageous matchup for Pittsburgh, and lots of room to run for Brown.
This play represented the 3rd time in the game that Roethlisberger hit Brown down the sideline on a go-route vs 1-on-1 coverage. Obviously, we don’t know if this particular play involved a miscommunication, was due to a lack of awareness, or was just a bad call by Dean Pees. Either way, it is shocking that Brown found himself in that situation with so much on the line.
Sunday night’s game was illustrative of how good the Steelers offense is. Baltimore was able to have spurts throughout the game where they successfully smothered the game’s best receiver, shut down Pittsburgh’s passing attack, and halted their running game in its tracks. Yet with just a sliver of opportunity, the Steelers made a very good Ravens defense pay dearly multiple times. Pittsburgh’s defense may be a bit of a question mark right now, but their offense is more than capable of powering them through the AFC.