PITTSBURGH — Many things went wrong for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense in the second half of Sunday’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but one of the most stand-out failures was the team’s decision to attempt — and complete failure to execute — a flea-flicker early in the fourth quarter.
The play was an absolute train wreck, and the aftermath of it ended up in what head coach Mike Tomlin called the most pivotal part of the Steelers letting a potential upset victory turn into a defeat.
First, let’s set the scene. The Steelers defense had just forced the Bengals to settle for a long field goal to keep the game at one score, with Cincinnati leading 27-23.
The Steelers offense had been struggling in the second half. Actually, that kind of under-sells it. The Steelers offense had been S-T-R-U-G-G-L-I-N-G. They looked sort of like the girl being chased, trying to find the keys to her car in a horror movie. You know it’s right there, but nothing is working.
They ran 12 plays on their first four drives of the third quarter. You can do that math. It’s not pretty. They earned no first downs. They gained a combined 10 yards. They did get three points, because T.J. Watt’s absurd interception started their fourth drive well within field goal range, but it’s as bad of an offensive quarter as is really possible without turning the ball over.
On the fifth drive of the second half, the Steelers got to 3rd and 4, and Kenny Pickett uncorked a deep ball down the right sideline that George Pickens somehow hauled in around Bengals corner Eli Apple. The 33-yard gain was more than double the previous 14 plays combined.
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Finally, the Steelers had something going. Then offensive coordinator Matt Canada called for a flea flicker.
You can look at the timing of the play call two ways. After having zero momentum the entire half, the Steelers finally had a positive play, and that’s a really weird time to dive into the bag of tricks. On the other hand, no one would expect that to be the time to dive into the bag of tricks. Surprise is a key element of trick plays working. After the game, some Cincinnati defensive players said they thought the Steelers offense was predictable.
I’m sure they didn’t predict this one.
As always, coordinators are almost universally judged on whether or not a trick play worked, and not whether calling it was a good or bad idea. No one seemed to care when Canada called a left-handed wide receiver pass to the fullback on fourth and goal a couple weeks ago. Read that sentence one more time for emphasis. That’s one of the most off-the-wall play calls I can think of. Nobody cared because it worked.
CANADIAN Chase Claypool with the TD PASS! pic.twitter.com/zhhvRZJy0F
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But people were really upset about Canada calling this flea flicker on Sunday. Because it did about the farthest possible thing from working.
Let’s take a look at the tape, starting with the end zone view of the line. The Steelers get an eight-man box and a single high safety. From a pre-snap alignment perspective, this is probably a good look for calling a flea flicker. There’s absolutely no reason for Pickett to get away from the call based on what he’s seeing.
The Bengals aren’t blitzing, but they still have eight players within four yards of the line of scrimmage when Najee Harris takes Kenny Pickett’s handoff. The Steelers have six players blocking the four players that are actively rushing. They will have three players in routes with only three players to cover them. The math is in their favor.
Then things start to go wrong. And boy do they go wrong. Somehow, with six men blocking four, the line has slid things so that defensive end Sam Hubbard has a solo matchup with tight end Zach Gentry. That’s probably not a good idea. Also, two of the Steelers’ free linemen are in the middle of the field, where the only possible player that can be blocked is middle linebacker Logan Wilson. So they’re wasting one of their extra blockers and leaving Gentry on an island. Not great.
Next, Harris pitches the ball to Pickett, and nearly misses him. It’s sort of hard to over-state how bad of a pitch this is. It only goes four yards and misses Pickett by a whole yard. Pickett very nearly misses it, and it’s a good thing he didn’t, because it would have been a walk-in touchdown.
The bad toss takes Pickett several strides to his right, directly into the path of Hubbard, who has since smoked Gentry to the outside and is closing in on the quarterback. If Pickett missed the toss, Hubbard could have scooped it up in stride and ran straight into the end zone.
Instead, Pickett snared it, but had to immediately step left and forward in order to get away from Hubbard. Harris did a decent job of recovering to get a chip, but the momentum of the play was immediately disrupted.
Once Pickett settled into the pocket, he discovered that he has no one open to throw to. That’s a bit unusual for three receivers against three defenders, but more on that later. The Steelers now have seven blockers with the addition of Harris, and once Bengals realized it was a trick play, Wilson and Jesse Bates bailed downfield instead of rushing. Only one additional Cincinnati defender, slot corner Mike Hilton, charged in.
It’s still seven blocking five. But Hilton comes from the far right of the offensive line, and the available blockers are still stacked together in the middle. There’s no one available to get to Hilton. Left tackle Dan Moore, with the other solo block is taking D.J. Reader after he stunted to the outside. Moore starts to get pushed back. Pickett feels the pressure coming from Reader, and runs directly toward Hilton. There is still a pocket to step up into. J.C. Hassenauer and James Daniels have yet to put two hands on a defender in the middle of the line. But Pickett moves right, straight toward Hilton.
Because of that decision, he very quickly runs out of time in the pocket and throws the ball away. If he had stepped forward, he could have kept the play alive longer and given himself the option of running with the ball and salvaging something positive out of the play.
So far, we’ve got the line not properly passing assignments and leaving Gentry 1-on-1 with an edge rusher, Gentry getting beaten by that edge rusher, Harris making a terrible pitch, Moore getting pushed back by Reader and Pickett moving into more pressure while leaving the pocket.
And we haven’t even gotten to the best part. And by best I mean worst.
When Pickett steps up into the pocket away from Hubbard, but before he moves in response to Reader’s pressure, he has some time to make a play. But there’s no one open. How?
Because two of the three receivers are in exactly the same place. George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth are right next to each other, running between the hash and the numbers up the right side. That’s clearly not the design of the play.
I spoke to a Steelers offensive player on Monday that confirmed that one of them got the call wrong.
Pickett only has a split second to throw there, but he does have time, and even though both players are together, they’re at least open enough that he could have thrown it to one of them. Clearly, though, in his split second, he looked to where he was expecting a receiver to be, and there wasn’t one there.
When Pickett moves to his right, he quickly sees Hilton coming and has to make a choice about what to do with the ball, but Pickens is still a full four yards clear of Apple, the same player he had just out-jumped when he was in his hip pocket. If Pickett throws the ball at the pylon, maybe Pickens catches, and maybe he doesn’t, but it’s unlikely that anything bad happens.
Instead, Pickett takes the safe route and throws the ball away. The next play, a 2nd and 10 run, lost two yards. Pickett was sacked on 3rd and long and the Steelers punted from the Cincinnati side of the 50. Living to fight another day can be a good strategy, but with that struggling offense, it didn’t work.
The Steelers defense made one stop, got the offense the ball back before midfield, and the offense took back-to-back penalties before punting again. Joe Burrow followed that with a game-sealing 93-yard scoring drive.
“Those are sequences that kind of change the tenor or feel of the half, if you will,” Tomlin said on Tuesday. “Oftentimes, when you’re back and forth in games, that’s the difference. I thought that was the tipping point.”
Largely, the Steelers second-half offensive failures, combined with the inability of their defense to force Cincinnati to settle for field goals, were the big reasons for Pittsburgh’s defeat on Sunday. But granularly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a play that was meaningful in the outcome that went worse for the Steelers than this flea-flicker.