The Steelers roared back in the second half on Sunday to knock off the Baltimore Ravens in a thriller. In the first half, much like the second half against the Titans, the Steelers’ offense was stagnant. They could not get anything going in either facet of the game. However, that changed in the second half as the Steelers began to claw back into the game.
Instead of Randy Fichtner calling the plays, Ben Roethlisberger was the one calling the shots. Roethlisberger described it as “backyard football” in his post-game press conference.
Roethlisberger Goes Empty, Up Tempo to Defeat Ravens
Something had to give for the Steelers as they entered the second-half and Roethlisberger’s empty set was the answer to these troubles. Not only was he was calling smart plays, but Roethlisberger was building plays right off of each other. It was a masterful display of how a veteran quarterback can take over the game with his mind.
The basic principle of it all is just spread the defense out, force them into man coverage, and let the receivers win one-on-one. With the Steelers talented pass catchers, this was no problem and worked well. This route combination between JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ray-Ray McCloud causes Marlon Humphrey to pause just a second. It allows Smith-Schuster to sneak behind Humphrey. However, this is really just an awesome play by Smith-Schuster to hold onto the football, break a tackle, and get a first down. Roethlisberger puts it right on the money and trusts Smith-Schuster to haul it in.
The Ravens had played man coverage against certain packages all game. Roethlisberger knew this, and the Steelers exploited it as a result. They reverted to stacked looks so the cornerbacks could not play up on their receivers. This freed up Smith-Schuster in particular, who was guarded by Humphrey all game. Roethlisberger dials up a simple pick play here. Chase Claypool runs a quick hitch as Humphrey gets caught up traffic, and Smith-Schuster gets open on the quick slant from this rub route. After breaking a tackle and fighting for a first-down, Smith-Schuster finally gets tackled. Pairing these plays with solid YAC receivers is an effective way to win.
Again, the condensed stack look allows flexibility to the off-receiver man than anything in this formation. Roethlisberger does not even call anything to the right side of this formation because he sees the massive cushion Jimmy Smith is giving Claypool on this play. This is similar to the touchdown play in that the Steelers are running a Hi-Lo concept and just taking whatever the defense is giving them. Smith gives Claypool easy room, so Claypool flattens this out nearly immediately, even as the Ravens exchange man responsibilities underneath. The cornerback does not range over if he is also trying to contact Ebron.
Essentially this is the same play as the one before, and this time it goes to Eric Ebron. The Ravens try to play up on both receivers, but the Steelers trust Ebron’s size and physicality to win against a much smaller cornerback on this play. It works to perfection as Ebron gives a slight shove to gain separation. These receivers’ physicality is still a big part of how they separate in and out of their breaks. Ebron is no exception, and he makes a fantastic adjustment on this ball to make the grab.
The touchdown catch was on a play essentially identical to the previous two. Roethlisberger had seen the success of the play the entire half and went back to the well. This time, however, he sees the Ravens are in a Cover-2 defensive look. The high-low concept to the back pylon forces the Ravens to communicate at a high level. The safety is a second late as Roethlisberger executes a pump fake, and the cornerback gets drawn down towards McCloud in the flat route. As such, Claypool sneaks behind him for a touchdown. It is a play the Steelers used the entire second half and the Ravens had zero answers all day.
The other obvious set the Steelers would go against man coverage is their bunch set, and they did that, too. On a key 3rd and 1, Roethlisberger dials up the bubble screen to Smith-Schuster. The Steelers got a key first-down off of this play last week in a similar fashion. There is nothing fancy about it, but Smith-Schuster’s strength and grittiness allow him to fight Humphrey, who meets him in the backfield, all the way for the first down on this play.
The Steelers mainly go to their bunch set in the third and short situations as it allows them to create enough traffic that someone will get open underneath. Running a mesh concept, Claypool and McCloud create chaos over the middle of the field, which is tough for linebackers to process let alone rookie linebackers like Patrick Queen. McCloud’s man essentially has to back off so he does not collide with Queen, and as McCloud takes further towards the short side of the field, he works open for the first down. This is why creating traffic is so useful against man coverage.
Ben Roethlisberger took the Ravens to town in the second half with man-coverage beaters. They had no adjustment or answers to stop it as the offensive line held up well against their blitzes and the Steelers receivers earned tough yards either after the catch or by making some tough catches along the way. It was truly death by a thousand cuts in the second half thanks to Roethlisberger’s “backyard football” play calling. By creating traffic and going up-tempo, Roethlisberger kept the Ravens defense tired and on their toes.