What in the world happened to the Steelers offense?
A unit that once was scoring points with ease is now struggling to move up and down the field. The Steelers offense has had its stagnant stretches before, but never two straight outings. Maybe it is the weird post-COVID-19-changes schedule that is messing with the Steelers. However, these issues have been there for most of the season and are only being exacerbated even more as time goes on. Monday against Washington was where it all culminated and caught up to the Steelers. Just what is wrong with this offense and what can they do to fix it?
Steelers Have A Lot of Work To Do
The Steelers offensive struggles can not be pinned down to one cause. There are multiple moving variables here. When Mike Tomlin talked about the “minutia” in regards to the run game in Tuesday press conference, that can be applied to entire offense as a whole. They were painfully average for the better part of the season, and now that defenses have adjusted, this is a below-average unit. The issue is that this is not just personnel or scheme related. There is no simple, easy fix. This is a multi-week project that the Steelers have put out for themselves. On another short week prior to their showdown with Buffalo, it is hard to see the Steelers fix every problem, but they can certainly fix some. Their games against the Ravens and Washington Football Team have put out a blueprint for other teams to copy.
Talking about the running game is a question that needs answered on a few levels. As Tomlin noted, there is not one problem with the running game. The Steelers running game has been bad for six weeks now. In a pinpoint sense, they have not been able to find a true running game since their win over the Titans. The answer to this question comes down to both schematics and personnel. Take this Benny Snell no gain for example.
The Steelers are in 12 personnel, which is a grouping from which they almost always run. Seriously, this year it is almost comical how sliced up this rushing attack is at this point. If the Steelers come out in a 2 TE set or have Jerald Hawkins on the field, the play is almost certainly a run. Defenses as such just load up the box and go. The Steelers have seven blockers, there are eight men in the box. It is predictable and heavy sets like this that bring that many guys into the box. Also, no one is biting on these jet motions anymore. The Steelers literally only run a jet motion on a running play and almost never run the sweep. Again, this is some of the most predictable stuff from a unit in football right now.
Then, there is the offensive line. I mean, there is no blocking here. The Steelers get mauled up front on this play. The push is simply not there. JC Hassenauer gets blown back, Vance McDonald gets thrown like a ragdoll into Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva, and overall, the offensive line’s pad level is putrid. That is why they are not getting any push. The offensive line plays with horrific pad level and it has to be fixed moving forward.
Here is a more successful run with Anthony McFarland. It is an inside zone run. This is the one glimmer of hope that the Steelers have shown in their rushing game recently. Inside zone is probably part of the solution to fixing this running game. The Steelers still condense the set rather than spreading it out to lighten the box for some reason. But Hassenauer and Feiler get a nice combo block here, David DeCastro makes a great climb, and they open a hole for McFarland. Best blocked run of the night. The Steelers need to run this and spread defenses out to lighten those boxes. They will find more success.
The red zone struggles have been something to look at and it is worrying. The lack of push up front is a huge detriment in this area and the short yardage game in general. Pittsburgh is struggling to even gain a yard. The real downfall of this play is having Eric Ebron against Chase Young. Ebron is a downright horrific blocker. He whiffs completely on Young, who proceeds to tackle Snell short of the goal line. If Ebron slows down Young, Snell probably gets in for the touchdown on this play right behind DeCastro’s solid block. Ebron has been hurting the Steelers as of late, and this is no exception.
Then, there are play calling issues. On a short week where the Steelers had no practice with their quarterback, they pull out a tackle eligible play. That is as curious of a decision if there ever was one. Hawkins gets stonewalled back by Montez Sweat and was not even open anyways. This is how desperate the Steelers are in short yardage situations. Anyways, it is a horrible play call and a bad option. At this point, get out of heavy and spread the defense out. There is a better chance of scoring from that than this heavy formation.
Going onto the passing game, teams having laid a blueprint out to slow down this offense. They can load the box to fight against the run and sell out for the underneath stuff by dropping an extra safety down into the box. There is nothing to threaten them over the middle of the field, so why not do it?
By doing that and playing tight man coverage, they force Ben Roethlisberger to make more tight window throws. He can do that, but his deep ball accuracy has been hit or miss this year. Washington even beats Ronald Darby and gets a step on him, but this is simply not a very good throw from Roethlisberger. He does not hold a ton of the blame for what this offense is going through right now, but Roethlisberger has to be more consistent here. The heave and pray outside the numbers is not working much any more, and the Steelers refuse to take deep shots down the middle of the field.
On top of the issues there, the Steelers have drop issues. Mostly, it is Ebron and Diontae Johnson now. This play is just one of the seven drops the Steelers registered on Monday. Those stagnate an offense and absolutely kill any momentum this offense has when they get into a rhythm. Without the drops, the Steelers very well could have won this game. At the baseline of getting this offense going again is simply catching the football. Johnson is thinking about his next move and fails to look the ball into his hands, resulting in a drop.
The Steelers did not give a lot of hope into what could fix their scheme, but this is a key play to highlight to fix that scheme. The Steelers offense consists of really four concepts in the passing game — screens, slants, deep bombs outside the numbers, and quick breaking in routes. They need to be attacking the intermediate middle of the field much more. The Steelers get their Cover 2 look and Johnson breaks wide open after finding the soft spot in the zone. This is how the Steelers can punish teams that are trying to cheat on the underneath stuff. Attacking them over the tip and over the middle. When they do it, defenses have no answer.
While this is an incomplete hospital ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster, these are the type of plays that the Steelers need to be hitting and running more often. Against a Cover 2 look, the Steelers run a really smart concept. They filter Smith-Schuster up the seam while Washington runs a go route. Roethlisberger sees Smith-Schuster one-on-one with a linebacker and just rips it. He actually fits it in there somehow too, but Smith-Schuster simply can not hold on. Roethlisberger likely could have read that free safety and pivoted to Washington, who was breaking wide open. They put that safety in conflict, but failed to capitalize on it. It is a hasty pre-snap read that Roethlisberger is executing right away post-snap. He will see this in the film room, and he may just need to dial it back a notch.
There are a lot of problems with this offense, but the fact is that they have refused to make adjustments and were coasting on confirmation bias. It was also tough to make any adjustments from the Ravens game on a short week without Roethlisberger practicing. Moving forward, the Steelers have to change what they do. They need to spread defenses out to lighten the box and hope that helps the offensive line. It just might since it worked well in the early portion of the season. In addition, they need to start attacking the intermediate part of the field. That can open up the underneath stuff even more as it forces defenses to back off and respect it. It will make the offense more unpredictable and in general, dangerous. It is a multi-week project, but on Sunday against Buffalo, the Steelers should be looking to implement some of these schematic changes, and most importantly, clean up drops.
Film Study: Examining Josh Dobbs as a Package QB
The Steelers offense put up a decent showing in Week 17. Behind a revitalized deep passing game, the Steelers offense opened up at all levels of the field. They eve tried out some new concepts to the scheme. The most notable of those would be the package implemented for Josh Dobbs. The third-string quarterback all season, Dobbs was inactive for the prior 15 games. Leading up to their game Sunday, the Steelers have maintained that the Dobbs package could show itself against the Browns. Having not ruled out anything, what was the package and just what did it entail?
This play is a simple pop pass jet sweep. The Steelers naturally have experience running that jet sweep action from earlier in the year. Hey, the pop pass itself has shown itself before. This one is simply a read for Dobbs to make. The Steelers run a pin-pull sweep to the short side of the field while the jet action is to the field side. The Steelers praise Dobbs for his headiness. This package makes use of that. Dobbs is reading the Mike linebacker (44) on this play. The read is simple. If the linebacker follows the motion, Dobbs keeps it, if not, it goes to Ray-Ray McCloud. The linebacker holds firm, so this goes to McCloud.
The problem with this play is the blocking is just bad. There are obvious problems. First, Myles Garrett stands Alejandro Villanueva right up and holds a strong edge. Villanueva’s inability to seal this edge eats up McCloud’s horizontal space. Then, Anthony McFarland whiffs on the linebacker coming down. This is a weird usage of personnel. McFarland never is going to be a very good lead blocker. The loss of the blocking dooms this play to fail for a loss.
This is a Steelers staple. They absolutely adore counter out of the shotgun. With Dobbs, they use it to create an effective counter read option. Working that off of their tendencies, the Browns crash on this off the edge. Dobbs just has to read what Oliver Vernon (54) does, and he keys those pullers. Dobbs simply pulls it back, has ideal open field blocking from JuJu Smith-Schuster, and gets a big rip. That is an awesome job of the Steelers using their tendencies to fool the Browns.
So, the Steelers now use the same play as the first video here in the red zone. That is perfect. The red zone is money for jet sweep action because of how much horizontal space there is to work in that area. It stretches the field. Good schematics, nice play call, but bad execution up front. Garrett was a problem for the Steelers all day, and Villanueva did not have a very good game. He blows up this play and stops McCloud from ever getting vertical.
Okay, fourth play in and third new concept. This is a seriously extensive package the Steelers have. It is not like they ran the same one or two plays. No, this is a well-developed package. That gives credence to the fact they may pull it out in the playoffs. This is the Bash Read Option. Dobbs just reads Vernon to see what he does. He squats down on McFarland running the sharp horizontal path and Dobbs keeps it. Overall, this is solid blocking. The pullers hit their guys, and the Steelers get lineman into the second level.
The Steelers work a pass off of this play. This time instead of popping it to McCloud, Dobbs runs a play-action fake and rolls out. He does a fantastic job to get out of this play. The Steelers run a three-tiered concept. McFarland is underneath on the flat route, Smith-Schuster comes on the over the route, and Washington runs a deep post. Depending on how the defense reacts adjusts Dobbs’ reads, but the over route is the most obvious one. Either way, no one is really open on this one and Dobbs has to throw it away. Creating a net-zero from a net loss as a quarterback is a good thing.
This is a play that will be familiar to everyone. The shovel option that the Steelers have run now for years. Vernon clamps down to the boundary towards McFarland, so the pitch to McDonald is the correct call here. Still, this blocking is not good and the main culprit for why this play does not work. Dotson whiffs on a pull and allows a defender to meet McDonald head-on in the alley. If Dotson hits that it is a different result and a solid gain.
The same pitch idea on this play, but instead of a shovel option, this is a shovel veer play instead, meaning that McFarland simply gets a handoff on a stretch action instead of a toss from Dobbs. The edge rusher bolts down on that veer action and the correct call is the pitch, yet again. Overall, this is just an awesome hustle play by the edge rusher to somehow turn up field and stop McDonald. The blocking on this one is outstanding. Sometimes, teams just make a better play.
Overall, the Dobbs package is promising. Schematically, it is unpredictable but simple. Teams can not crowd the box with Dobbs as a passing threat, either. That is the nice thing about this package. It seems that it would be most effective in short-yardage and red zone spots, however. The Steelers decided to unleash it in some odd spots. In the future, strictly use it for those situations and all is well. The biggest obstacle to this, as it is for the Steelers running game in general, is blocking.
Film Study: Steelers WR Chase Claypool Must Be Heavily Involved on Sunday
The Steelers, with a bevy of their backups, came excruciatingly close to a victory over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday, falling by a two-point margin that could have eliminated the Browns from the postseason. Instead, they will face the Browns on Sunday night in Pittsburgh. It will not be Mason Rudolph leading the charge but Ben Roethlisberger, which should go a long to lift Pittsburgh’s chances.
Either way, Sunday brought a valuable lesson that the Steelers must follow. The Steelers have to implement Chase Claypool into this offense and use him. For the past one and a half games, whenever activated, Claypool has proven to be a catalyst to open up the Steelers offense.
The Steelers really wanted to hit this route all day. The slant flat combination between Claypool and Vance McDonald was a frequent play call. This is the only time they end up hitting it to Claypool. Claypool uses a slide release to draw the cornerback outside from his inside shade. The cornerback’s hips turn outside and that near hip gets locked the moment his hips freeze to extend his arms for contact. Claypool then armbars over the cornerback’s arms and get enough separation to get open and get the first down. For a guy who has some trouble versus press, this is encouraging.
Obviously, though, Claypool’s explosive plays were the highlights of his day. This is an outstanding catch. The play through contact to even get himself into the window at the catch point is awesome. At times this year, Claypool has not played at his size. He does play to his size and physicality on this play and it is why he is able to make this catch. Boxing out that cornerback in contested catch situations is something that Claypool needs to do at a higher level.
However, he is capable of making plays like this any time. The Browns show a single-high look, so this cornerback is going to be on an island in the Cover 3 scheme. Something that Ben Roethlisberger needs to do this week is trusting his guys to just make plays. That is something that Rudolph did exceptionally well on Sunday. He let his guys go and make plays. That does not mean Roethlisberger has to ball Joe Flacco ball and just launch bombs. No, far from it. But Claypool is a playmaker who can make tough catches. If the pre-snap look obviously leaves him in a one-on-one scenario, give him opportunities. The guy is a freak.
This play is just pure speed from Claypool and nothing more. He stems it quite nicely into the blind spot of the cornerback. Still, this is that height-weight-speed combination that Claypool was touted for out of the draft. Guys at 6-foot-4 should not be able to run this fast. With that type of speed, Claypool can house one if the ball is on the money on any deep pass. Over the second half of the Steelers, the Steelers have neglected this stark advantage over teams. Mike Tomlin continues to mention Claypool’s “rookie wall,” but on Sunday they did want him to get involved and it was clear. As Tomlin intended, it was likely a confidence-building game.
Here is another added benefit of the Claypool vertical success. For Claypool, it will open up all of the routes on the vertical plane. With guys having to respect his deep speed, Claypool can run outs, digs, curls, comebacks, and more on the vertical plane. If they decide to devote resources to slow down those routes, too, then the underneath stuff opens up and others eat in his place. That is a great schematic advantage that the Steelers are just corking out now.
The stats are clear that when Claypool has a big day and is involved, this offense churns in a different way. It makes sense. Think back to that drive versus the Colts where the Steelers bombed in the red zone, but it was a Claypool drive. For the rest of the game, the Colts backed off. Claypool is the Steelers’ best weapon to attack downfield by far. It is not even close. He makes the wheels on the offense turn if he is on because the defense has to back off or get burnt. Part of it is Claypool doing his job. In recent weeks, he is doing just that. Now, the other part is Randy Fichtner and Roethlisberger. Get Claypool involved and give him his deep opportunities and the offense goes with it. Claypool should be an integral piece to the offensive gameplan in the Steelers’ first playoff game Sunday.
Scouting Report: Colts Playmakers On Both Sides of the Ball Present Issues
The Steelers have yet another opportunity to clinch the AFC North in Week 16 as they host a surging Indianapolis Colts team. Indianapolis has a host of young playmakers on both sides of the ball that are contributing to their upward trajectory. However, key veterans, such as quarterback Phillip Rivers, as holding down the anchor as well with their notable experience down the stretch. How can the Steelers somehow turn around the ship and defeat the Colts in Week 16?
Head Coach Frank Reich runs a system that relies itself upon West Coast offense ideals. That means this offense is very horizontal and they give their pass catchers lots of YAC opportunities. However, with Rivers being a rather solid vertical passer, they also have some elements of vertical passing concepts from the air raid and Air Coryell schemes respectively. It gives the offense flexibility to do what it wants. That flexibility comes in particular help when they suffer injuries along the offensive line and should impact them in a big way today.
Here is a little feel for the Colts passing offense. There are a lot of bunch sets and they like to attack the middle of the field at all levels. Drag routes are everywhere throughout the playbook. Some other extremely common routes are over routes, slants, post routes, and dig routes. They run bunch sets to try and create traffic. In that way, Steelers fans will recognize a bit of this scheme. Create mismatches with size through stacked looks and then let the receivers do the rest of the week. With a seam route on this play as well, it gives Rivers the ability to take the duty of trusting one of his receivers down the field if he wishes to do so. Seeing that he has single-high coverage and man coverage across the board, Rivers takes the shot and they get a big gain out of it.
However, one of the cruxes of their offensive success recently has been their rushing attack. Rookie Jonathan Taylor is finding his groove and the offensive line looks better than ever before. Most of their runs go between the tackles, and they run inside zone and split zone primarily. It takes advantage of strong blockers like tight ends Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox.
Here is a split zone run where the movement upfront is clear as day. Doyle hits the kick-out block while the combo block by the right tackle and right guard get a lot of movement up to the second level. It clogs up the lanes for the linebackers and Taylor uses his vision and elusiveness to create yardage. Runs like this are commonplace for the Colts, especially over this past six-game stretch.
Defensively, the Colts run a 4-3 scheme headed by Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus. Eberflus has turned his defense into a primarily Cover 3 and Cover 1 heavy defense. When he came to the Colts in 2018, it was largely a Cover 2 defense, but that will change this season. With their adaptability in coverage, disguising coverages on the back end has never been better. Like the Bills, they do a lot of man match coverage, which is what led to Ben Roethlisberger’s pick-six against the Bills. Given the Steelers’ love of throwing the ball underneath, it would not be a surprise to see heavy single-high looks with match-man principles underneath to try and slow down the passing attack.
Players to Watch
QB Phillip Rivers
Rivers has been delightful to watch this season as he continues a strong season. Despite playing through a bad toe injury, Rivers has managed this offense nicely. The veteran expertise he has brought to the position, especially from a mental standpoint, has opened up the offense in a lot of ways. He can still make most of the throws to any part of the field, and while he is not mobile, Rivers has no trouble getting the ball out in a hurry underneath. Still, with a depleted offensive line this week, Rivers has his work cut out for himself.
OL Quenton Nelson
It is impossible to talk about Indianapolis and not mention potentially best player. Quenton Nelson is a monster who brings everything NFL teams to want in a guard to the table. He has the mauler nastiness to throw people into the ground. Nelson has the football IQ to sniff out stunts and stop them in their tracks. But perhaps most importantly, Nelson is a certified people mover. This running game’s base is powered by Nelson as he moves guys out of their gaps with ease. Now, Nelson had a tough time against Cam Heyward last season, so if there is anyone who can stop Nelson, it is Heyward.
DL DeForest Buckner
After coming over in a trade from San Francisco, the Colts have reaped the benefits of DeForest Buckner’s talents. He has been one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL this season bar none. Buckner is fourth in the NFL among interior pass rushers in quarterback hits. His blend of explosiveness and power was felt by the Steelers last year. Buckner registered a sack, four pressures, two quarterback hits, and two quarterback hurries last year against the Steelers. They will have to slow him down and protect Roethlisberger.
Matchups to Watch
Nyheim Hines vs Steelers LBs
The Steelers are down to only three inside linebackers for this game with Ulysees Gilbert III heading to IR and Marcus Allen missing the game with a stinger. That leaves them without a strong coverage linebacker, and the Colts have an elite receiving back in Nyheim Hines. Hines is their gadget do-it-all guy similar to JD McKissic for the Washington Football Team. Whatever the Steelers have to do to prevent a repeat of that Week 13 performance, they have to do it. Especially with heavy pressure coming, it should be clear that quick passes to the running back are going to be used in high dosage on Sunday.
Steelers Pass Rush vs Colts Offensive Line
This is the elephant in the room. It is like a cloud hanging over the head of the Colts’ offense. They will be without both of the starting tackles, and they leave a lot of room for TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith to create pressure on Rivers. It was already noted that the Colts offensive line had trouble with Heyward last year, and with Stephon Tuitt now back in the mix as well, the Steelers pass rush could be a menace that this Colts offense is bugged by the entire game. If the Steelers want to win this game, the pass rush will need to be a big factor and perhaps create a turnover.