No team is the same from one year to the next, but one can learn about where a team is going by studying where it has been. We've watched each Steelers game last year play-by-play and pulled out a certain amount of trend-setting and trend-extending plays that earned the Steelers both a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff loss. We'll highlight what each of those plays meant from a bigger picture perspective on the season that was in 2011.
Maybe it was the re-signing of OT Max Starks in the days leading up to the Steelers' emphatic 38-17 thrashing of Tennessee. Maybe it was the the offensive game plan that included less five and seven step drops for eventual AFC Offensive Player of the Week Ben Roethlisberger (24-for-34, 228 yards, 5 touchdowns) and more rushes (171 yards on the ground).
It was, most likely, a combination of all of those things, but the result was perhaps the Steelers' best all around performance of the season.
The first play of the game, Titans RB Chris Johnson takes a zone sweep aimed at exploiting OLB Lawrence Timmons (in for the injured James Harrison) off the left side for 20 yards. The same feeling of helplessness on the ground overtook all of us watching.
Johnson managed 31 yards on his next 13 carries (2.3 yards per carry), extending his career total against Pittsburgh to 61 carries for 211 yards (3.4 yards per carry), never having rushed for more than 69 yards.
While the Steelers defense would be run on a bit more as the season progressed, it was after Johnson's initial carry in Week 5 a real change from how the defense started playing happened. With the exception of Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew's 96-yard effort in Week 6, the Steelers weren't gouged by any one particular back the rest of the way (including stuffing Baltimore's Ray Rice to 43 yards in the re-match against the Ravens).
Against Tennessee, they were without Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith; a look the defensive line would have to get used to for the remainder of the season. NT Chris Hoke played an outstanding game in Hampton's place, getting low and knifing through a talented Titans offensive line to stifle their running game.
Goal Line Stand
The Titans' opening drive was full of penalties and misfires on both teams, and while it seems the norm is offenses eventually putting the ball in the end zone if given several opportunities, that wasn't the case against Tennessee. The Titans had, essentially, two touchdown passes dropped and couldn't convert a Steelers penalty into anything more than three points.
The Steelers defense became what would eventually become the league's best scoring defense in this game, even on this drive. Outstanding plays by Ike Taylor and Lawrence Timmons bottled Johnson up for a four yard loss, was outshined by LaMarr Woodley pushing his blocker into Titans QB Matt Hasselbeck and taking both of them down for a sack. SS Troy Polamalu slips past a blocker on a well-timed screen pass to take Johnson down on 3rd and 12 to force the field goal.
There was some sloppy play in this game early, but it produced a few of the best defensive plays of the season. All told, the Titans went 89 yards on 13 plays in their opening drive, and were held to 217 yards on their next 57 plays.
WR Antonio Brown took the opening kickoff 52 yards, and the Steelers never looked back. Roethlisberger, hampered by a sprain and bone bruise in his right foot, kept the passes short, leading to two important factors; the beginning of the Antonio Brown Emergence in 2011 and the last two touchdown passes WR Hines Ward would ever catch.
With RB Rashard Mendenhall out with a hamstring injury, the Steelers didn't have great success running the ball early, but Roethlisberger was peppering passes to the non-Mike Wallace receivers (targets to Brown, Ward, David Johnson and Weslye Saunders on the opening drive). While the running game would come around, the offensive line gets a large amount of credit for Roethlisberger's performance in the sense it was not as disastrous of a game for that unit as Week 4 at Houston was. However, Roethlisberger did not hold onto the ball nearly as long against Tennessee and was decisive in his throws. Credit is due to the offensive line, but in review, the one sack allowed seemed more the effect of shorter patterns and quicker releases.
And for all Isaac Redman fans (who are often anti-Mendenhall fans), Redman spun through the hole on a carry in the first quarter. Just sayin'...
The opening drive ends so perfectly. Ward is split wide to Roethlisberger's left, in the slot, with an empty backfield. Roethlisberger drops five, looks at Ward, which draws the middle of the Titans zone over a step. He turns back and fires at perfect pass to TE Heath Miller, who falls forward for the score.
Six different Steelers had catches or were targeted on that drive - Saunders, Wallace Redman, Johnson, Brown and Miller. They ran double-tight, they ran five wide, they converted screen passes, they converted pass down the seam. Tennessee really had no idea what to expect.
And all of this without one pattern run longer than 11 yards.
The Steelers get away from this philosophy a bit against Jacksonville in Week 6, largely due to the extreme match-up advantage Wallace had against any Jaguars defender, but a blustery day in Pittsburgh held that plan at bay. They would, however, ramp it up in wins over Arizona and New England, as the Steelers produced their best offensive performances during this time.
And it all started, ironically, due to Roethlisberger's injured foot.
New Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley will look at the opening drive of this game in his film evaluation of this team in 2011, and he'll wonder why the Steelers didn't utilize the team's depth at receiver a bit more throughout the year.
In other words, he'll wonder exactly what we've wondered for a few months now.
The Value of Play Action
I remember writing after this game the value of all those 1-yard carries, not as a means of scoring on each play, but rather, setting up the play-action.
Redman has 15 yards on six carries at this point. Brown just rattled off a 10-yard carry on first down, giving the Steelers the ball at Tennessee's 7-yard line. Roethlisberger sells a good play-action, and doesn't even need to look at Ward. It's a quick, smooth catch-and-release throw to a wide open Ward for the score.
Play action, touchdown pass to Johnson. 21-3, the route is on, and every single Steelers offensive player who's been on the field has been involved in some way. Excellent all-around execution in one of the best overall performances the Steelers offense would put up all season.
The cherry on top was the Steelers gave notice to their future opponents loading the box to stop the run or keeping safeties close to the line to cut off underneath routes would come with a consequence. Wallace torches the Titans secondary for a 40-yard touchdown that came after the Steelers ran twice for four yards on first and second down.
Woodley announced his four-game funk to start the season was over, marking the beginning of a streak that, had he not suffered a hamstring injury in Week 9, would have put him in contention for Defensive Player of the year (1.5 sacks and an interception against Tennessee, the first of four consecutive games with more than one sack). Roethlisberger was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week and the Steelers rushed for 176 yards in the win.
They just don't get much more dominant than that.