With no rushing attack, the Steelers have relied on their short passing game to sustain their offense. Quick throws on early downs serve as a de facto running game. But defenses have been sitting on those shorter route concepts for weeks, eliminating any sustaining element to Pittsburgh’s offense. Entering Week 16, this had led to 4 straight games of less than 20 points and 3 straight losses. It also led to just 93 total yards in the first half against the Colts. Then Pittsburgh decided to loosen up Indy’s defense.
In the second half, the Steelers found ways to break their early-down tendencies and generate explosive plays. The play that got them going came in the 3rd quarter from Indy’s 39-yard line. This was 1st down. Focus on wide receiver Diontae Johnson at the top of the screen. He ran a sluggo route (slant-and-go), which got cornerback Rock Ya-Sin to bite just enough to let Johnson get on top.
Great throw, great catch. That’s how you get defenses to stop sitting on those shorter routes.
In the 4th quarter, Big Ben and the Steelers again were able to get Colts defenders to bite on underneath throws before attacking over the top. Once again, this was on 1st down. Focus on Diontae Johnson running a quick in-breaking route from the left. Roethlisberger pump-faked his way, getting safety Tavon Wilson to bite.
This opened up the area of the field behind Wilson for JuJu Smith-Schuster’s deep-over route coming from the other side of the field.
That throw by Roethlisberger deserves another look from the end-zone angle.
Perfect throw, great catch, and a great play call. After a rough start, Big Ben finished the game by going 23-29 for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns in the second half.
The Steelers aren’t cured or out of the woods just yet. They still don’t run the ball well. They don’t utilized play-action very much. Their quick passing game still struggles. Double moves and pump-fakes alone won’t get them to the Super Bowl. But they need to start loosening up the defense consistently to open up that underneath passing game that they rely on so much. They need to challenge the defense and find ways to put defenders in conflict. They need to find ways to keep defenses off balance and avoid prolonged periods of games where they’re effectively a quick-passing-game one-trick pony. They figured out how to do that in the 2nd half against Indy. They’ll need to do it multiple times to get to Tampa in February.
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