The Steelers came out of Tennessee with a close victory after a second-half that was marred with inconsistent play across the entire team.
However, the Steelers did finish the day with a significant offensive bright spot, going 13 of 18 on third downs on the day. Their ability to convert such third downs had to have some type of coherent plan behind it. So, just how did Randy Fichtner dial up a gameplan to take on the Titans’ defensive scheme and defeat it on third downs?
Steelers Go to Quick Passing Game on Third Down
The Steelers knew that the Titans love to run a few main concepts in their defensive playbook. On third down, these concepts are almost always Cover 2 Man or Tampa 2 coverage. The Titans have been running those coverages all year to try and take away that middle of the field. Against the Steelers, they really were trying to shut down the deep passes to Chase Claypool and flood the middle with traffic. As such, the Steelers went into their bag of tricks and countered with their quick passing game knowing they had receivers who could win after the catch.
The Steelers knew they could get man coverage or at the very least if it is against Cover 3, a massive cushion underneath. That allows Ben Roethlisberger to dial up this quick slant to Diontae Johnson, who has at least a ten-yard cushion. With the Titans scared of the deep ball, Roethlisberger is able to hit Johnson in stride on a quick slant, and Johnson uses his YAC skills to win in the open field for a huge first down on the opening drive. Not many players are as shifty as Johnson in the open field, and the Steelers offense is better by having Johnson in the lineup because they can dial up plays like this.
The Steelers look like they get their 2-high coverage on this play, but in reality, the Titans are just disguising man coverage across the board. Claypool comes in motion, and while no one follows him across the formation, Kevin Byard steps up as an exchange of responsibilities occurs. Now the man that was on Claypool becomes a free blitzer. However, Roethlisberger’s hot check is Johnson is not only is playing with a hefty cushion, but Claypool’s corner route takes Byard out of the play. Roethlisberger hits Johnson on the quick in-route, and Johnson again uses his great change of direction and quickness to force a missed tackle and a touchdown.
The rare attempt where the quick passing game almost worked, but it fails. The Titans come out with a slight adjustment as they roll into their man free coverage. There is one single-high safety, and it allows star safety Kevin Byard to either blitz Roethlisberger or takes away those middle of the field YAC opportunities with the cornerback staying disciplined and holding the outside cutback lane. As such, while Johnson gets about seven or eight yards, Byard gets the backside pursuit tackle. It is a nice adjustment by Mike Vrabel at this stage of the game.
The Steelers realize they are going to get a lot of Cover 2 man looks, and as such, they go back to their bunch set to create blocks and traffic. for easy first downs. They have been fantastic at using this bunch set to take advantage of the man coverage looks that defenses like to use on third and short. Both Claypool and Ebron throw solid blocks that allow JuJu Smith-Schuster to get the perimeter. Smith-Schuster uses his physicality and strength to fight for more yards and secure the first down. It is the presence of these YAC receivers, whether they are gritty or elusive, that allows Fichtner to call up plays like this one.
The Titans are running a full-on blitz to stop the run here. However, notice how they back off to still have enough in their arsenal to defend the deep pass. The tight alignment gives Smith-Schuster space to work into wherever his route carries him, and more importantly, he is masked behind the run. Some hand-fighting ensues, and Smith-Schuster uses his strong frame to gain a step of separation for a key first-down. Yet again, the Steelers hit the Titans with another man coverage beater.
Even on this play, the Titans roll back into their Tampa 2 coverage, which they relied on heavily in more third and long situations. That is the exact coverage that Roethlisberger’s last interception came off. However, the Steelers chose to attack it underneath instead and let their YAC receivers try to fight and grind out the yards necessary to get the first down. Smith-Schuster takes a shot and ends spinning forward in the air to the first-down marker. Yet again, a great effort by even getting there.
The Steelers had some rocky moments against the Titans offensively, there is no doubt about it. Still, their third-down efficiency was great to see, and it was a gameplan that allowed their YAC receivers to flourish, unlike any other game they have had this season. The beauty of the Steelers offense is that they are so flexible and versatile. With the weapons they have, this offense can beat opposing defenses in multiple ways on any given Sunday.