The Steelers pulled out a win against the Cowboys on Sunday by a hair. However, their path to victory from their last week was very similar.
With the offense looking sluggish and failing to get its wheels going, the Steelers went back to well and let Ben Roethlisberger call the shots.
Why did the Steelers go back to this gameplan, and what did they see that made it so effective to implement in the game?
Steelers Give Roethlisberger the Keys
The Steelers saw themselves shut out until late in the second quarter when they finally started to spread the Cowboys defense and attack the secondary. The Cowboys had run many concepts that clogged the middle of the field, and the Steelers seemed hesitant to attack outside the numbers. To feel confident doing that, they decided to go back to the old reliable, their 01 personnel or empty set with four wide receiver and tight end Eric Ebron.
The Steelers ran their 11 or 10 personnel all game up until this point, even on that drive. With that, they often let Chase Claypool run a lot of slants to great success. The Steelers have weaponized this against cornerbacks who try to cheat up against the slant in a big way. Anthony Brown had been against Claypool all game seeing those slants, so when James Washington takes an inside stem, he is thinking slant the whole way. It was a nice way to set up the double move for Washington, who cuts back up the field and accelerates to create separation for the touchdown.
The Steelers saw that the Cowboys did not have the personnel to match up with their receiver talent. They forced the Cowboys to go deep into their cornerback depth chart if they wanted to stop the Steelers receivers. Here, they get an excellent numbers game from this alignment. It is two-on-two with a one-on-one opportunity for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the alley. The Steelers rely on Smith-Schuster’s yards after catch ability to extend this play into a big rip, but the blocking numbers up front were favorable in this man coverage scheme as well.
The entire question of this second half was that the Steelers knew their receivers were better than the Cowboys’ cornerbacks. The Steelers allow Claypool and Smith-Schuster to win off the line. Both of them win on this play, but the immediate middle of the field option is the first read. Smith-Schuster stems it outside, which gets the cornerback to stop his feet and open up the gate as his outside hip freezes. As such, Smith-Schuster can stem the route back inside and get wide open.
The Steelers get Smith-Schuster on safety here as Dallas decides to get out of their dime package. That is a mismatch that the Steelers want to take advantage of all day. The Steelers clear out the middle of the field in this cover two scheme by running two deep routes with Diontae Johnson and Ray-Ray McCloud on opposing sides with Smith-Schuster running a copper route. The Steelers have run this play at least as far back as 2017, and Smith-Schuster had a touchdown on a similar play against Houston in that season. It is a fantastic route as Smith-Schuster sells it with his eyes and gets the defensive back biting. He fights for the extra yards and a touchdown.
The Steelers knew they needed easy ways to get completions in short-yardage areas. Out of 01 personnel, a great way to do that is with the big tight end creating traffic. Ebron acts as a huge traffic cone here to ward off the Dallas secondary from scraping over top. As such, Johnson gets an easy completion and space to make something happen. The Steelers use traffic to dismantle man coverage. It gives yard-after-catch receives like Johnson opportunities to make plays.
The bunch set is another way to cause traffic for the Steelers. However, here they do it pre-snap rather than post-snap like the last play. It forces the defensive back to play with a huge cushion on a crisp route runner like Johnson, who he can not compete with given that cushion. Johnson works wide open and shows off some flashy moves in the open field to get more yardage. It is that schematic and ball-carrying combination that makes this work so well.
There is a similar situation here. Roethlisberger creates traffic with two-seam routes which give Ebron room underneath to work open. Jaylon Smith, the linebacker, does not follow him for some reason, but if he had, the seam routes would have caught him up in all the traffic. As such, Ebron gets to work in space and use his athleticism to clinch this touchdown and the go-ahead score.
The Steelers implementation of 01 personnel was all because of the talent they have at receiver. These guys can win against man coverage and win after the catch, too. It was essentially daring Dallas to try and beat them in man coverage, but they had no answer for it. By creating space and traffic, the Steelers give talented YAC receivers opportunities to do what they did best. That is why the offense suddenly caught fire in the second half.
Film Study: Steelers Running Game Improves, But Inconsistent
The Steelers convincingly took care of business in Jacksonville with a 27-3 victory to improve to 10-0 on the season.
Despite that perfect record, Head Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged the team on the field is far from perfect. One of the main areas of concern has been the Steelers’ stagnant running game. While it has been a work in progress, Tomlin acknowledged that it was a multi-week project to fix. The good news is that the Steelers put up the most rushing yards they have since their Week 6 victory over the Cleveland Browns. However, how that occurred may bring into question some sustainability questions for the future.
James Conner Powers Running Game to Success
While the Steelers tried to make some adjustments, the real power of the running game was none other than James Conner. Despite having some down games in the past few weeks, Conner played his best game in over a month on Sunday. Per SteelersNow’s charting, Conner forced six missed tackles, an impressive day for the Pitt product. It was that creativity that launched Conner’s day.
The obvious first play that comes to mind is Conner’s vicious stiff arm. Few plays are as disrespectful as a strong, power run where the runner just bulldozes a guy over with ease. Conner reached that level of disrespectful on this run as he just strong arms the defensive back into the dirt. Even prior to getting into the open field, Conner does a great job of violently planting his foot in the ground and cutting on a dime. That forces a missed tackle by the defense who is converging in the middle of the field and Conner breaks this one. Conner’s read and react ability was on another level in this game.
This is a jailbreak run that is actually aided by some really fantastic backside blocking to help Conner. The Steelers continue to try and run this counter from the shotgun and it is just getting shut down every week. David DeCastro does not look as athletic as he did last year and is not clearing holes like he used to this season. It is a nice job by Conner to see everyone on Jacksonville pursuing to the play side and to make something out of nothing. The credit goes to him and solid blocks by JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Ben Roethlisberger to help spring this improbable gain.
This is the best of both worlds on this play. Not only does the line get some good blocking up front, but Conner aids them on it too. Check out Eric Ebron and Zach Gentry seal that edge to open up the outside lane for Conner to burst through. That is the groundwork to spring this. Conner’s subtlely pressing that line behind Gentry and Ebron to get the linebacker and defensive back to cheat down closer to the line of scrimmage behind cutting outside. This is great vision and a run that great running backs make. Conner is working off the ideal blocking to then suck the second level defenders into the trash below and then just uses his burst to get the corner.
In reality, this is just an awesome play call by Randy Fichtner. This is a master class on how to exploit the Jaguars third-down tendencies. They run a long of blitzes on third and long, but on third and medium, the Jaguars love to show this blitz look and drop back. This is not a revelation, as they have shown it in prior weeks. The Steelers are just catching them off guard by running into an extremely light box with everyone backpedaling. It helps that the backside on this play is sealed off very well by Chuks Okorafor and Maurkice Pouncey while David DeCastro gets a hat-on-hat to clear the alley on the pull. Overall, this is the best run play on the day as an entire unit.
Still, this running game is being staggered to a degree. Many of the fans will point to the little push the Steelers get up front, and while that can be true to a degree, the Steelers actually have a massive numbers problem. This is not a badly blocked up front as far as it goes. The push is there and the play side edge is nearly sealed. The issue is the Jaguars are in Cover 1 and have a nine man box against only eight Steelers blockers. Conner is going to have a hard time defeating the edge with that cornerback pinching the line. He actually does break that tackle, and this one can be chalked up to Eric Ebron missing the linebacker at the second-level. It has been seldom mentioned but the Steelers miss Vance McDonald’s blocking presence on plays like this one. If Ebron seals off that linebacker, Conner is still running.
Again, this play really is not horribly blocked up front. The Steelers are facing a seven man box when they only have six guys. They are trusting Conner again to be able to break this in the alley. DeCastro hits his pull and the blocking is not bad at all, but Conner is stuffed by a free linebacker keying this play.
This is where Fichtner lays the offensive line and Conner out to dry. The look and run is so similar and vanilla that teams are just reading the flow pre-snap and jumping it. There is no way Conner can make a move in that small of a space, so schematically Fichtner has to find a way to freeze that backside linebacker or move him. Effective motions would help that. The Steelers badly need to mix up their pre-snap looks with the motions if they want this counter play to work again. Running the ball in the modern NFL requires new wrinkles, looks, and plays to keep teams on their toes. The Steelers are not doing that. Everything about it is far too predictable and it is hard to blame the offensive line on a good deal of this plays.
Anthony McFarland had three unsuccessful carries on the day. The Steelers are trying to get him involved anyway they can, but he is just not seeing the field right now. McFarland has dynamic athleticism to hit open spaces and break big plays, but when his feet and eyes are not working together, it is tough to maximize runs with his athleticism. This is all a processing problem. McFarland makes this cut far too sharp and steep and essentially loses control of his cutting ability after the fact. If he stays patient and controlled, McFarland has a cutback lane he can hit behind Feiler. This is a young guy battling through the struggles of the NFL. It seems the game is just going a bit too fast for McFarland right now.
The Steelers running game is a work-in-progress, as Tomlin acknowledged. Most of the big plays on the day was Conner creating yards himself through his elusiveness and athleticism. However, the offensive line certainly took a step up in regards to their performance. It is far from perfect, but there were some creases to hit this game. The loss of McDonald and the schematic efforts are hurting this run game right now. Fichtner and Matt Canada have to find a way to diversify looks and get teams off-guard. Blitzes off the edge are disrupting pulls and the offensive line. The numbers game is simply off for the Steelers right now up front. They can run against a seven-man box with only six blockers, but in order to do that, they need more flavor schematically. That is what will really break open this rushing attack.
Film Study: Antoine Brooks Fundamentally Strong in Debut
The Steelers surprised most by shunning Justin Layne in the dime package for Antoine Brooks on Sunday against the Bengals. Brooks was elevated as a COVID-replacement and had a prominent role throughout the game. He played 28 snaps, or 43%, of all defensive plays for the Steelers. They clearly had a role for him and trusted him the most to pull off the Mike Hilton. How did Brooks do in his first significant snaps?
Brooks Showcases Solid Fundamentals on Sunday
A lot of the work that Brooks was asked to do on Sunday was slot work. While he was drafted as a safety and linebacker hybrid, Brooks did not play at either of those spots. He had experience in the slot at Maryland, so this is not a blindside adjustment for him to make, but it is notable that his first key snaps were as a slot cornerback. The Steelers wanted to keep Steven Nelson on the boundary, and Brooks was the adjustment they saw necessary to do that.
When talking about fundamentals in young defensive backs, it is hard to get much better than this. Brooks is playing with an outside shade on Auden Tate. Knowing his leverage is to the outside, and that he has help to the inside with Terrell Edmunds there, Brooks sells out on his outside leverage. Coverage is basically is a big leverage battle between the defensive back and the receiver. So, knowing where help is and keeping that leverage is integral.
Brooks keeps his eyes disciplined through the receiver’s hips and stays patient. Defensive back coaches will always talk about playing square to leverage and only flipping those hips once the receiver declares the route. Brooks uses his eyes well and lets take dictate the route. Lastly, notice how Brooks gets his head around in case Tate is targeted on this play. A lot of guys like Terrell Edmunds gave up catches because they lacked that trait. Brooks clearly has it down. Overall, even though he is not targeted, this is a great fundamental play by Brooks.
Brooks is playing fantastic situational football on this play. Knowing the one place he can not get beat is outside since that is where his leverage is, Brooks yet again sells out hard to the outside. However, this is great footwork by Brooks. Notice how he is shuffling with the inside stem of the receiver. He is trying not let up too much separation outside here by mirroring the receiver’s steps here. Brooks is playing through the hips of the receiver. Once the receiver cuts in, Brooks drives down inside and allows maybe a step of separation. By showing patience and mirroring with his feet, Brooks takes away any chance that this receiver can get a first down if it’s thrown his way.
Okay, so this is Brooks in match coverage. With a 3×1 formation, the Steelers usually check into their match man coverage rules, which can be straight man coverage or a diversely oriented zone coverage like it is here. Knowing his responsibility is that deep sideline, Brooks bails on it right away. The thing that makes this play strong for Brooks is that he gets his head around right when he reaches that midpoint of his zone. Playing midpoint technique gives him the room to either get more depth or drive depending on the route to the sideline. Brooks is playing this perfectly and using his processing skills here. These rules in a pattern match scheme are not easy to learn, so this is encouraging to see the rookie execute them at this level.
This is the one play where Brooks gets beat. Tyler Boyd does not get both feet down, but Brooks opens the gate here. Brooks does a nice job of using his eyes to read through Boyd’s hips which are peaking inside. However, Boyd is an elite route runner and Brooks fails to stay patient before driving downhill on Boyd to the inside. Brooks gets a bit of a break on this one because Boyd is one of the best route runners in the league and he is a mere rookie, but there are lessons to be learned here. Most importantly, while Brooks has great eyes, he needs to learn to take receivers away with his feet first. With more reps, that should come, as he has already flashed that skill.
In his first significant snaps, Brooks looked like a solid contributor on a defensive unit. His man coverage snaps are incredibly encouraging and it seems he already has the Steelers complex pattern matching coverages down. Looking forward, Brooks may not get a ton of snaps with Mike Hilton, but live practice reps could be key for his growth and development.
Film Study: Ben Roethlisberger Dazzles Against Bengals
The Steelers came out and crushed the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday with a convincing 36-10 victory at Heinz Field. While the team remains undefeated at 9-0, there are still issues to be had with the team, but it is undeniable how good the passing game has been this season. Despite Ben Roethlisberger missing most of the week, the Steelers passing game did not miss a beat. Roethlisberger threw for over 300 passing yards and four touchdowns on the day. Even with no running game, the Steelers offense continues to churn thanks to Roethlisberger directing the offense like a symphony. His performance against the Bengals is one of his most impressive to date.
Roethlisberger Lights Up Bengals Secondary
The Bengals came in with injuries across the board, but especially at the cornerback position. It was not helped when they lost Mackensie Alexander to a concussion in the second quarter. The Steelers and Roethlisberger methodically attacked the depleted secondary as a result, but that does not make Roethlisberger’s performance any less impressive. The first half may have been his best half of the entire season.
The deep ball has been inconsistent this season, and Roethlisberger still had some misses in this category on Sunday. However, his deep ball looked as good as it has all year. This throw to Diontae Johnson is the best deep ball throw he has arguably since the Week 2 touchdown to Chase Claypool. Roethlisberger does a great job looking off the safety to give himself space to peak this back to Johnson. Even as he feels a defender around his ankles, Roethlisberger steps into this throw and drives a dime to Johnson. That is right in the bucket and leads Johnson perfectly, too. It is arguably his best throw of the day and a promising sign for the Steelers moving forward.
The Steelers have not run this throw up the seam almost all year. However, this throw is impressive despite it being slightly behind Eric Ebron. Roethlisberger reads the outside shade and Cover 3 defense like a book. Once the linebacker opens up his hips and turns his back, he knows he has this throw open. This is a textbook of anticipation, as Ebron is not even out of his break when Roethlisberger fires this rocket into the window. The timing is perfect and allows for this completion to occur, and timing has been spotty at times in this offense.
A similar play, but Roethlisberger’s dart here is allowed by a combination of factors. First, Roethlisberger weaponizes his eyes and looks off the linebacker to move him towards the flat by pump faking in Ebron’s direction. This essentially becomes a Tampa 2 with the linebacker dropping in between the two fanning safeties at the top of coverage. For this pass to be complete, it has to be absolutely perfect. Roethlisberger’s ball placement is at a point where Claypool can attack it and make the catch, but the velocity on this pass is impressive. The arm talent Roethlisberger displays here makes this throw one of his best on the day.
Roethlisberger was flexing his arm talent all evening on Sunday. While he threw plenty of absolute screamers, the ability to throw at different speeds is the very definition of arm talent. There are few better examples of that this play. Roethlisberger wants to hit a quick pass out of the stack look, but it is covered up. He does a great job of staying calm in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield. No one is really open here, but Roethlisberger floats this pass perfectly to Ebron. Even if Vonn Bell does not fall, he is not making this play. That touch is impressive.
However, this is perhaps the best two plays of the day for Roethlisberger. Despite limited mobility at the age of 38, Roethlisberger still has the ability to extend plays out of structure. That is an invaluable tool in today’s NFL and Roethlisberger has that tool from his younger days still in his arsenal. The first throw to Claypool is a rocket that should have been caught by Claypool. Roethlisberger puts it right where it needs to be and kept his eyes downfield. The second throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster is not about the throw as it is about his pre-snap recognition. Roethlisberger sees the blitz look of the right edge and knows it right away. He feels the pressure, steps up in the pocket, and puts the ball right where it needs to be for Smith-Schuster. A rookie might not see that blitz or have the perfect pocket movement to accompany the read, but that is where the experience of Roethlisberger comes into play.
The Steelers are 9-0, and it is in large part thanks to Roethlisberger. He continues to perform at a high-level in a season coming off of elbow surgery. The arm talent is still there in spades, and Roethlisberger somehow seems to be getting only better down the stretch. If he continues to play at the level he is playing right now, the Steelers can go the entire way.