Steelers Film Room: A time for choosing

Nick Laham

One of the most cliched terms nowadays is that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Many that use the cliche, however, don't really understand why this is the case. With this article, we will take a look at what Ben Roethlisberger does when he tries to put the Steelers in the best play possible.

Back in the days when Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne were dominating college football, they dominated by running the option.  The term option referred to the decisions the QB had.  With the triple option, he, obviously, had 3 options based upon what the defensive tackle (who was unblocked) did.  First, he could give the ball to the fullback.  Second, he could keep the ball.  Third, he could pitch the ball to the tailback.  What made the option so successful was that it simply took what the defense gave them.

The modern day iteration of the triple option is the zone read.  Sadly, we have seen how effective the zone read can be when run correctly.  However, these option offenses never took hold in the NFL.  I had a running argument with a good friend over the ability of Pat White to be an NFL QB.  That debate ended when White was knocked unconscious by Ike Taylor at the end of the 2009 season.

Offensive coordinators have always looked for ways to incorporate the theory behind the option offense without getting their QB hit multiple times throughout the game.  Well, they have found a way, and that has led to the explosion of points in college football, and to a smaller extent, the NFL.

In the old option, all of the decisions were made after the snap.  Now, the decisions are all made pre-snap.  Depending on the situation, Roethlisberger will go to the line of scrimmage with between 3 to 5 plays to call.  It is important to remember, they are not separate plays specifically.  Instead, the calls are built into the play.  Look at this play.

This is a tough formation for the defense because the Steelers normally put Antonio Brown out as that single receiver.  Even if it is not Brown, the defense is probably not going to put that DB on an island.  If they do, Ben will take that coverage right now.  That is option 1.  Next, Ben will look at the three receiver side.  Did the defense cover down against those receivers? Does the offense have leverage? That is option 2. Notice how wide the alignment of Terrel Suggs is.  Moreover, notice how wide the linebacker at the top of the screen (number 5) is.  So, the Ravens are trying to defend the run with 6 in the box, but it is more like a 5 man box because of the width of those two defenders.  Suggs is trying to help with Heath Miller, and the linebacker is trying to help with the slant by the single receiver away from the trips formation.  Ben recognizes this and, wisely, goes with the run (option 3) on 3rd Down.

Here is the very next play:

Same call with the same options.  This is how teams are able to go no huddle.  Ben is able to communicate with the offense without a lot of verbiage. The checks (options) are built into the play.  It is simply a matter of taking what the defense gives.  In this example, Ben and the receiver both know that if you are given the cushion, take the easy yards. It doesn't matter what the original route was supposed to be.  If you have the easy throw and catch, take it.   Though not flashy, these plays are very important in today's NFL.  If you could get 8 yards with a running play, fans will stand and cheer every time the offense ran that play.  Run this play enough times, however, and you are called a dink and dunk offense.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  These plays keep you ahead of the chains and keep the defense off balance.  If you remember an article a wrote a while back, it is the ability of Seattle to take away these types of plays that made their defense so good.

So, to review, it is the job of the quarterback to find the vulnerability of the defense.  Earlier, I mentioned that one of the things to look at is if the defense is covering down on the receivers.  What does that actually mean?  This picture explains it well.

If you look at the receivers at the bottom of the screen, they are being covered by 1.5 defenders.  What does that mean? The corner is one, but the deep safety does not count.  There is no way he can cover a quick throw or a screen to the wide receiver.  The key defender here is the linebacker that I have labeled .5.  Why does he count only as a half? Well, he is not split out of the box.  He is trying to play inside the box as a run defender, but also help on a pass.  He can't play both. At this point it is simple math: 2 vs. 1.5.  Ben knows this and throws the wide receiver screen as a result since the defense is out-leveraged.  This is a good gain for the Steelers, and only a tremendous play by the Mike linebacker prevents it from being a bigger play.  Once again, these are easy yards.  These are yards that are being given by the defense.

Why would the linebacker stay in the box when there is no threat of run with Roethlisberger? Great question.  He is obviously misaligned.  The Steelers are not going to run QB draw.  But, you see the problem that guys like Nick Saban have in college.  That guy in college can run.  And, he might not be able to throw as well as Ben, but he can throw a wide receiver screen.  So, what do you do? Do you cover down on the receivers and be vulnerable to QB run, or do you lose leverage on the wide receiver screen? The defense, currently, does not have the answer which is why scores are so high in college football.

The other interesting thing to note here is that Todd Haley has no idea whether or not that linebacker is going to cover down on the receiver. As a result, he does not call the wide receiver screen.  This is all up to Ben.  Again, these are checks that are built into the play.  If the defense is giving you something, you take it.

In a late season loss to the Green Bay Packers, Tony Romo threw a costly interception late in the 4th quarter.  Many Dallas fans were confused as to why a pass would've been called in that situation.  Then, it was "revealed" that Romo changed the play from a run to a pass.  Not really.  Romo did exactly what I just described.  The corners were playing off, the hitch was there, take it.

And Romo was right.  He should have thrown that pass.  The person in the wrong in that play is the wide receiver.  He was jogging out of his break in the route.  He was not on the same page as his QB and it cost Dallas the game.  Somewhere in this upcoming draft, the Steelers are going to draft a wide receiver.  I would submit that his ability to read defenses and convert his route based upon what the defense is doing  will be the thing that determines his eventual success in the NFL.

Great quarterbacks in the NFL have the ability to get the offense out of a bad play and into a good one. There is no perfect defense.  If there was, everyone would be running it.  Every defense has a weakness.  Great quarterbacks are able to choose the best option to exploit those weaknesses.

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