In the martial art known as Judo, one of the main tactics is to find ways to use your opponents’ own momentum against them. It’s an idea that translates well to the football field in many ways. One of those is intentionally drawing attention to a repeated pattern and then, when the opponent recognizes it and adjusts, subtly changing things around. The Steelers — and, specifically, receiver Antonio Brown — did this to near-perfection Sunday against the Chiefs.
Brown beat the Chiefs with slants and posts all day long. In particular, a route combination in which Brown ran a deep-ish slant/shallow post, while the slot receiver ran a short out. That combo was the key to at least three nice gains for the Steelers, and it set up several nice bait-and-switch moments. Its success against Kansas City could set the stage for a similar game plan in Week 7 against the rival Cincinnati Bengals, who also use a lot of Cover-1 and Cover-3 looks with very, very aggressive defensive backs.
1st Quarter, 12:57 Remaining, 1st & 10, PIT 37
The first of these came on the Steelers’ first possession, and really was the play that set the stage for how Brown would be used throughout the day. This combination works for two reasons: 1) the Chiefs showed a lot of Cover-1 and Cover-3 throughout the day, and the slant/low post takes advantage of both of these in different, but effective, ways; and 2) Kansas City was giving Brown a huge cushion.
There’s a lot going on in this play. First, the Steelers look to be setting up a screen to running back Le’Veon Bell, who’s split wide to the right (top of the screen). They further sell this by motioning tight end Jesse James from the backfield to the right slot. They finish it by sending right tackle Marcus Gilbert out as an extra blocker after the snap. All of this draws five defenders away from the middle of the field, leaving a massive hole about 10 yards wide and 25 yards deep. Brown is one-on-one with the corner, and the safety is far too deep to stop anything. It’s an easy pitch and catch for Roethlisberger. And it was a great setup for our next play.
Chances are good this was supposed to be a screen all along, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger noticed the coverage on the other side of the field. Either way, it was a great call.
3rd Quarter, 7:34 Remaining, 2nd & 6, PIT 15
By this point in the game, the Steelers had run Brown on at least seven slants or posts, with a fair amount of success. A few of those were run using the same over/under combo from the first play, and some were run without the underneath route. This one used that combo, but with a well-timed twist.
Keep in mind, the Steelers only needed six yards here. As you can see, this wasn’t just a slant for Brown. The defensive back appears to recognize the route combo and, not wanting to be suckered in again, makes an aggressive, downhill move in an effort to jump the route. It was the worst thing he could have done.
The move likely would have worked had the route simply been another slant. Instead, it’s a double move, with Brown faking the slant before turning back upfield. Because the free safety had been playing so deep all day long, Brown had all kinds of room. At the moment he catches the ball, the nearest defender is five yards away. This play would go for 30 yards.
Later, with 9:18 remaining in the game, the Steelers would run the slant-over/out-under combo with Brown again. This time, the defensive backs gave almost no cushion, and the one on Brown, Terrance Mitchell, played it tight and honest. He didn’t allow Brown any space, but played the catch instead of trying for the big play, and batted the ball away. It appears there was some interference, but I’ve seen worse go uncalled.
This is an important moment in the passing game, as the Steelers would not run this same route combo again. Instead...
4th Quarter, 5:31 Remaining, 2nd & 4, PIT 31
This is a subtle-but-notable adjustment by the offense. Until this point in the game, Brown had only run one other out route, by my count. There are two keys that make this play a no-brainer. First, cornerback Marcus Peters is giving Brown a nine-yard cushion when the Steelers only need four yards. Second — and this one is very subtle — Peters is slightly shaded to Brown’s inside shoulder, likely trying to take away the slant. If Peters was giving Brown one to four yards of cushion, there is a chance he jumps this route with that positioning, but his depth makes that impossible. And, because he was so deep, the inside position helps Brown by putting Peters just a little further from where the ball is going to go. You can see in the diagram below that Peters had no chance to defend this pass at any time.
At first glance, this doesn’t look to be one of Brown’s crisper routes. Indeed, he rounds the corner rather than squaring it with a hard cut. However, that’s exactly the final reason he was able to get as much depth as he did: he carried a lot of speed into his break, forcing Peters to stay in his backpedal to prevent Brown from simply running right past him. Peters never recovers, and Brown gets 10 yards on an out when he only needed four. These are the minute details of Brown’s route-running and ability to read opposing corners that make him nearly uncoverable most of the time.
The best part of this play is the body language of Peters after Brown goes out of bounds: the slumped shoulders and shaking head is the look of pure dejection from someone who knows he was thoroughly played by one of the game’s masters.
While the run ruled the day for the Steelers in their 19-13 win over the Chiefs, it was a well-designed passing game that opened up a lot of those holes for Bell, James Conner and Terrell Watson. With a very similar defense on tap in week seven, the Steelers would be smart to simply work in a few more nuances like the ones covered here to take advantage of the Bengals’ aggressive nature, but stick to a similar overall game plan. Cincinnati tends to disguise their coverages more, but also take more chances, which Brown often feasts upon.