Ben Roethlisberger’s final game against the Ravens was not one for the easily anxious. To say the least, the Steelers turned the dramatics up to one hundred, but in the end, they pulled it out. Still, on a drive that would take 15 plays to go 65 yards, there were a few crucial plays that needed to happen in order to will them to a game-winning field goal off the reliable foot of Crhis Boswell.
Those three plays that really jump out are Diontae Johnson’s beautiful whip route, Ray-Ray McCloud’s crucial fourth-down conversion, and Pat Freiermuth’s out route catch on a key third and long. They were all plays that were in crucial money-down situations but kept the drive moving as the Steelers tried to slam the door shut and get their way into the playoffs.
The out route to Freiermuth is a great call just because of the leverage the Ravens are playing. They are playing to take away anything over the middle here, and since they are tagging man coverage across the board, attacking that leverage is exactly the right way to go. Still, this is airtight coverage. It takes a beautiful quick break by Freiermuth to get an inch of separation and a dime by Roethlisberger to place this right where it needed to be. There is not much in the way of schematic genius here. It is calling the right play against man coverage and attacking leverage with a big body. The bigger, more important part of this play is the fantastic execution by Freiermuth and Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger himself says it best.
“Pat made a great catch,” Roethlisberger said.
Meanwhile, Freiermuth returned the pleasantries.
“It was a perfect throw,” Freiermuth said. “It was where it needed to be, and it was easy to catch one on the throw like that. So, it’s all good.”
Now, this is where schematics start coming into play. The Steelers are absolutely expecting to see man coverage yet again on a play like this. In the entire drive, the Ravens had stayed in man coverage and did not drop their linebackers out of the middle of the field. Instead, they played inside leverage to take away the middle of the field. However, they employ a different strategy here, The linebackers flare out. The Ravens are playing quarters on the back end. By doing so, the underneath players must communicate and pass off each other’s assignments.
However, what ends up happening here is that the big body of Freiermuth on the out route creates a lot of traffic for those linebackers who are flaring out. Since they were so focused on Freiermuth on the out route and trap him, McCloud pops underneath and is wide open. In general, it is a good schematic play design to take advantage of a call like this. The Steelers gave Roethlisberger an easy play against zone and man. By creating havoc, it worked McCloud wide open.
“And then coming back on the fourth down, we went to the sideline, and we actually called a play for Pat to break out,” Roethlisberger said, “He kept telling us, ‘They are playing the out.’ So, I said, ‘Hey listen, on this play instead of breaking out, break in and we will see what happens.’ So, they gave us the worst look, and Ray-Ray was coming right behind him. And as I stepped up, big Calias [Campbell] was right there, and he reminded me how close he came to batting it down, and I just fit it right in to RayRay [McCloud]. I think it’s so special because earlier in that drive, McCloud had a drop. I really hate to call it a drop. But to come back and make that play, he came back to the locker room, and guys were hugging him. I love giving a guy an opportunity like that, and for Ray-Ray to make that play and give us a chance to win it is special.”
There are few players that are better at whip routes than Diontae Johnson. Moreover, if the Ravens are going to play man coverage across the board, and put 32-year old Jimmy Smith on Johnson, the Steelers should attack that matchup for they can extract from it. There is an art to how quickly and fluidly Johnson runs his routes. He is efficient and has great fluidity in his hips. However, it might just be his zero-to-100 acceleration that makes him so special. Johnson can stop on a dime and then pick up to full speed right away. Those are rare physical traits to have despite his testing being average. He has always been a technical maestro and there was simply no way for Smith to match how fluidly Johnson runs this route. He pumps his arms to sell that short slant extremely well. Once Smith committed to it with his hips, it was over.
“We called a return route,” Roethlisberger said. “He’d been running that quick shallow route, and I’ve said ‘til I’m blue in the face, Diontae on in-and-out breaks is un-guardable. So, he put his foot in the ground and returned right out of there, and got to the sideline. I had tunnel vision on that play. I had a pretty good idea I was going there the whole time.”