The Steelers did not change their entire scheme offensively against the Cincinnati Bengals to crack the code and get over 400 yards in their win. As the Steelers ‘ interim offensive coordinator, Eddie Faulkner admitted that Rome can’t be built in one day. Will the scheme suddenly look vastly different? No. It was Week 12, and some tweaks were made to maximize the talent on the offense, but not everything could suddenly be flipped.
However, that does not mean the team did not make meaningful tweaks to make it more successful. The process ended up much better as a result of that process. But what did they change, and is it sustainable?
Using Personnel Right (Pat Freiermuth)
This feels like the obvious one, but it’s something that has to be said. Pat Freiermuth came off injured reserve last week and was a nonfactor, with Pittsburgh throwing him right back in as an in-line blocker, largely unsuccessfully, as they did earlier in the season. It meant that Freiermuth struggled yet again, and his tough season continued. That is until Sunday when he suddenly broke out. But it was not mystical; it’s directly tied to how the Steelers used him.
For the first time all year, Freiermuth was mainly detached from the line of scrimmage. He played out off the formation and was used as a big receiver. When asked to block, Freiermuth was asked to block inside linebackers or defensive backs, not defensive ends. And on the rare occasion he had to block defensive ends, Freiermuth’s confidence allowed him to compete. That highlighted Freiermuth’s mismatch ability out wide and his route-running prowess. He is a smooth player that can make that happen. Using him as a big slot receiver opened things up for Pittsburgh.
He was not the only one who saw their usage diversified. George Pickens saw his route tree utilized in the right way, and they allowed him to find ways around coverages the Bengals were using. Najee Harris’ runs were almost all that allowed him to get downhill or use his lateral agility to make quick cuts. Allen Robinson II saw his usual big blocker role spiced up to make him more effective. It was never revolutionary, but it put the guys in spots to succeed. That’s just good coaching.
Motion with Purpose
Under Matt Canada, too many times did the Steelers use motion to use it. Robinson would do cardio for most of the game on jet motions that had no threat of being anything more than a bootleg to the flat. But what we saw on Sunday was not just using motion for the sake of using it. Instead, it gave players free releases out of stacked sets, worked into route combinations in rhythm with Kenny Pickett’s drops, and allowed simple plays to pop.
Some of those motions opened the field and gave Pickett some easy layups. The one play that sticks out to me is when the team motion Robinson out of the fullback spot in the I-Formation to the wing. It forced the Bengals to adjust their defense and gave him a wide-open route in the flat for a first down. Same bootleg we have seen all year, but dressed in a different way to cause havoc defensively. This was a welcome change and one that popped on tape.
Anticipation of Adjustments
The Steelers have seen a ton of two-high this year. Sometimes, they would see single-high coverage when teams wanted to sell out to stop the run, but in recent weeks, teams have lived with the Steelers running the ball and opting instead to play cloud coverage to take away guys like Pickens and Diontae Johnson. It’s a smart strategy when Pittsburgh would not attack the middle of the field (more on that later).
But in this game, the opposite happened. In the game’s first drive, the Steelers attacked behind the linebackers twice up the seam to Freiermuth to exploit that Cover 2. The Bengals did not seem to care and would stick to that, instead opting to key their linebackers downhill against the run instead of sifting another guy up. That was until later on 3rd and 3, when Pittsburgh could quickly run the ball. Instead, they anticipated the single-high coverage ran man beaters and nailed Johnson down the field.
Throughout the game, the Steelers seemed ready for whatever the Bengals would do in response to their run game and work the passing game off that. As a result, they crept back into two-high, and the Steelers punished them on the ground and in spacing routes underneath. They started the game playing man up on their formations, so the Steelers added motions and went to bunches and stacked looks that forced the Bengals to pass routes off and gave them conversions. All of this came together well.
The last example of this would be when the Bengals went even match man and put Mike Hilton on Pickens; they immediately went over the top on the slot fade. After that, Cincinnati went back into their two-high stuff, and on one game-clinching drive, the Steelers punished them by riding the Najee Harris wave. That’s good coaching again. And it’s not something we see often in Canada.
Attack Other Areas of the Field
The middle of the field exists. Yes, and the Steelers made it an emphasis on Sunday against the Bengals for the first time all season. It existed in the playbook, but Pittsburgh never made those guys the primary reads, and Pickett certainly did not feel confident enough to make those plays. But in this offense, he showed he could do it, and Pittsburgh found success over the middle of the field and on those seam routes to Freiermuth.
When presented with the two high looks, it was a refreshing change of pace to see the Steelers attack those areas of the field. There were choice routes, intermediate routes, and plays putting defenders in conflict. There probably should have been more targets in that area, but Pickett fell back into some tendencies throughout the game. That’s a welcome, but even small change that can open things up on the offensive side of the ball, allowing Pickens and Johnson to get more of those explosive plays.