While the Pittsburgh Steelers were largely successful moving the ball against the Detroit Lions last Sunday night, they struggled mightily at scoring points — a running theme throughout the entire 2017 season.
The defense, while giving up a lot of yardage, ultimately kept the Lions out of the end zone, but did allow them to get close enough for future Hall-of-Fame kicker Matt Prater to kick five field goals.
So it was, then, that the Steelers found themselves with a mere 5-point lead late in the fourth quarter as the 2-minute warning came and went. Two Le’Veon Bell runs left the Steelers facing 3rd-and-1 with 1:29 remaining, coming out of the Lions’ third and final timeout. A first down would leave the Steelers merely needing to kneel down a few times; failure to make it would give the Lions the ball with about 45 seconds to go.
As the Steelers found out against the Dallas Cowboys in 2016, 45 seconds is more than enough time for a competent quarterback who had already moved the ball effectively all night long to put his team in a position to pull off a last-second win.
Pittsburgh comes out in a tight formation, with three receivers — Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Jesse James — bunched immediately to the right of third-string right tackle Matt Feiler. Across the formation, about four or five yards away from left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, was receiver Justin Hunter. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Bell were in the backfield, in shotgun. The entire formation can be seen below:
At this point, Brown moves from right to left until he is in line with the right A-gap, then reverses direction. This motion had been used throughout the game, nearly ten times. Detroit cornerback Quandre Diggs sees Brown, and slides a bit in his direction, but when Brown reverses direction, he puts his attention elsewhere.
This time, though, Brown’s motion was different — and it may have one of the two biggest keys to making this play work.
After reversing direction, Brown takes a few steps to the right B-gap, and turns around again. This time, he moves quickly to a spot to the left of Hunter. Diggs rushes to catch up and, in doing so, leaves a huge void in the middle of the defense, behind the defensive line. There are two defensive backs lined up over Smith-Schuster and James, and the free safety is about 10 yards off of the ball in the center of the field. There are now five defenders to the right of center Maurkice Pouncey, and six to the left. Normally, that wouldn’t be seen as desirable against a play moving from right to left, but there are a few other factors.
For one thing, it’s fairly obvious that safety Tavon Wilson, who’s playing at the line of scrimmage just inside Hunter, is about to come on a blitz. This is likely to counter any outside toss to Bell. This becomes obvious as his initial move at the snap is to shade toward Bell.
The other factor that negated the imbalance in the defense was that Brown, Hunter and Bell all ran routes towards the left sideline. This drew two defensive backs and a linebacker their way. The movements of those three, plus Wilson, effectively nullified four of the six defenders on that side of the ball. That left only an outside linebacker and a defensive tackle. Left guard Ramon Foster took the tackle out of the play, but the biggest key to this entire play was what happened to the linebacker.
Villanueva ate the linebacker’s lunch—and his dinner—and his bedtime snack, too. You can see it in the video below:
Meanwhile, in the backfield, Roethlisberger now has Wilson bearing down on him. The play design here, though, is one the Steelers have used a lot this year. It’s not even the first time that Smith-Schuster has been the receiver on the play. It’s also been done with Jesse James. It works as well as it does because this movement — the innermost receiver in the bunch moving laterally behind the line of scrimmage — is also used effectively in the Steelers’ run game, often on counters, to set up an additional blocker. It’s common enough that it doesn’t immediately tell the defense what is happening on the play.
It works well in this case, and Roethlisberger stood in and was ready to take a shot from Wilson, flipping the ball to Smith-Schuster at the last possible moment. Wilson still manages, miraculously, to pull up without hitting Roethlisberger.
In the end, Smith-Schuster got four of his 193 yards on this play. He only needed one, though, and that one yard enabled the Steelers to finish the game in victory formation.