The Steelers are coming off a narrow victory where a stingy Ravens secondary proved to be their kryptonite. While the Ravens were mostly wiped out from their COVID-19 outbreak, their secondary was intact. The defense was stingy as they trusted their defensive backs and the Steelers receivers committed some errors themselves. Bringing both together created a stagnant offense that the Steelers hope is a one-week showing. Maybe more concerning was how the Ravens shut down the Steelers short and quick passing game. The Steelers struggles on third down, especially third and short, were largely attributed to these issues.
Baltimore Gets Tricky to Stop Quick Passing Game
Baltimore gave the Steelers a far different look than they did against the team in Week 8. While there was a lot of man-heavy plays still, they made it a key to take away the quick, underneath routes. JuJu Smith-Schuster certainly noticed that the Ravens game planned specifically for the quick, short passing game.
“I would say, I would say, yeah,” Smith-Schuster said. “I would say they were ready for all the quick slants underneath, the quick plays, plays that we have been getting the past game that we played them at their stadium, so I think they were more prepared, having the knowledge drop, being able to read and to disrupt everything that’s going on in the bubbles and all that. So, yeah, they played very well in stopping us on third down.”
That would be all true, as upon reviewing the film, the Ravens pulled some tricks out of their bag.
The secret to the Ravens’ plan was playing a lot of half field coverages. That would mean potentially straight man coverage on one side while they worked zone either underneath on the strong side of the formation. By doing this, it gives them flexibility to not just mix up their coverages, but their blitzers as well. They do that on this third down play, as the Ravens drop their outside linebacker out to stop Diontae Johnson on the dig route. It disguises the double A-gap blitz and forces Roethlisberger to try and hit the longer developing in-route at the second level. They even contact Eric Ebron to slow the progression down more. The blitz gets home, and Roethlisberger can not hit Ebron just as he is breaking open. This is a great way to cause havoc up front for the Steelers.
The Steelers love to run this quick slant play on third and short out of this bunch set because it gives them a numbers advantage and thus a quick completion. The Ravens overload the bunch side and instead have the numbers advantage. They have four defenders defending a three man route combination. That allows them to cut off the quick slant inside as they bracket the slant route shooting to the inside. This is a great blueprint for teams to slow down this play in the future, and the Steelers may have to get creative to open up other routes off of this combination.
Much like the running game, coverage out of empty is a numbers game. The Ravens have the numbers game won from the snap here. There are four defenders ready to guard three receivers. Knowing the mid-screen is coming, as it is another common play the Steelers run in third and short situations, the Ravens put an outside linebacker there to disrupt the inside route and act as a filter to help the cornerback. By disrupting the most inside receiver, that cornerback is also far cleaner than he would be otherwise and it allows him to drive down on Claypool and make the quick tackle.
The Steelers started to learn that the Ravens were going to use their linebackers to stop their short passing game. Their adjustment was to bring out new plays that created openings towards the sideline rather than in between the numbers. The quick slant and dig route from the outside creates natural cushion for Johnson off the line on this play and gets him the step of separation that he needs. This is where the Steelers drops come into play. They drew up the perfect play, but the receivers simply could not execute.
The hail mary heave by Ben Roethlisberger at the end of the game is a phenomenal example of what the Ravens were trying to do this game. They are bluffing the blitz and instead drop out a linebacker onto James Washington. Roethlisberger sees that matchup and takes it every time, even with a safety lurking over top. He floats it right where it needs to be and Washington makes a tough catch. The confidence in Washington to make this catch is huge. However, Washington flattens this route out just enough to where Roethlisberger has enough room to work. It was a sound scheme by Baltimore, but a better play by the Steelers.
The Ravens created traffic and natural brackets with their linebackers to stop the quick passing game in short yardage positions. The Steelers showed the ability to adapt, but their receivers did not step up to the task. Teams will certainly try to replicate what Baltimore did, but it is tough to do that without their level of talent at cornerback. Look for more one-on-one shots to the backside of these plays in the future where the Steelers and Roethlisberger like the matchup.