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Steelers vs. Browns: How the Pittsburgh coaching staff is preparing the offense

What kind of offensive scheme is most effective against the Cleveland Browns defense?

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Ever wonder how a coaching staff puts together a game plan? With Week 1 upon us, I thought I’d assemble a primer on what the staff is doing in preparation for the opener. Let’s break down how a game plan is assembled, with our focus on this week’s opponent, the Cleveland Browns.

(For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on the offense here. We’ll look at defensive game-planning in a future post).

STEP ONE: WHAT’S THE FRONT?

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is unsure how to begin her journey down the Yellow Brick Road when Glinda the Good Witch tells her, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” That’s sound advice if you ask me. What is the beginning, then, for an offensive coaching staff when constructing a game plan?

Dissect the defensive fronts of your opponent.

On the surface, this is relatively simple. You look at the personnel a team plays with and how they align those players. Then you look at which Xs and Os in your arsenal can best exploit their scheme. Then the fun begins.

First, the opponent’s scheme. There has been a lot of talk at BTSC about sub-packages and the limited amount of snaps teams now play in their “base” defense. Still, from a game-planning standpoint, identifying the base-defense matters. The Browns under DC Gregg Williams employ two true defensive tackles and two true ends, making them a base 4-3. For the Steelers, this will mean they must block a “gap” front (each 4-3 defender will align in a gap) as opposed to the head-up defenders featured in a traditional 3-4. Many OC’s prefer to run the ball at gap fronts over stack (head-up) fronts because the OL have angles on their adjacent DL and there tends to be less pinching and slanting since the DL are already lined up in the gaps they hope to control. Because of this, the scheme tends to present less confusion for the offense as far as blocking assignments are concerned.

What schemes do the Steelers employ that might be good against a gap front? The Steelers staff may like power run schemes against this front, since they allow the OL to block “down” on defenders aligned to their inside. Power, counter and sweep are three such schemes the Steelers traditionally employ. All can be run effectively versus a 4-3 because 4-3 defenders are primarily responsible for holding their gap (as opposed to penetrating and getting into the backfield, which is a hallmark of the 3-4). Penetration kills slow-developing plays like sweep and counter. Therefore, if an OC knows he’s getting two 4-3 DTs who would rather dig in and hold their ground than penetrate, he may go heavy on power runs in his game-plan.

The Steelers other staple run play, inside zone, may not be as effective against the 4-3. Inside zone relies on the OL displacing defenders from the gaps in which they are aligned. Inside zone works best when interior linemen double team defensive tackles to the linebacker level. Gap-control 4-3 DTs are hard to move, however, and there is less double-teaming and more “on” blocking against a 4-3 than a 3-4. Therefore, to run inside zone effectively, the Steelers need to be confident their OL can win 1-on-1 blocks against the Browns DL. Furthermore, since inside zone does not designate a specific hole at which the back should run, it requires him to get a feel for where the cuts will be and to exercise great vision in finding them. With Le’Veon Bell likely to be rusty in this regard, and with the Steelers OL having to rely more on 1-on-1 blocks and less on double teams, the inside zone scheme may not be as attractive.

If the Steelers do want to use a heavy dose of power runs, they will have to employ some combination of 11, 12 or 21 personnel groups. These involve a tight end, a fullback and/or an H-back, which means that players like Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, Vance McDonald (if available) and Rosie Nix will be largely involved. The Steelers could also run these schemes from 20 personnel, inserting either James Conner or Jaylen Samuels in an H-back role in the backfield with Bell (I doubt they will do this, but it’s a possibility). When game-planning, the staff will have to make an important calculation: does the benefit of having Nix or James on the field in order to run power, sweep and counter out-weigh the benefit of four wide receiver sets with Bell in the backfield that will limit the diversity of the run game but open up the passing game?

Now, the really fun part. Once the offensive staff decides what schemes they want to use to attack the Cleveland front, they will then decide how to best use those schemes. Personnel groupings, as previously stated, are part of this calculus. So, too, is personnel evaluation. Myles Garrett, the uber-talented Browns DE, is a pass rushing phenom. But how good is he working against a down block? It’s often said it’s better to run at athletic freaks like Garrett than to run away from them. Running away lets them use their speed and agility to run down plays from behind. Running at them forces them to be physical at the point of attack and to deal with a clutter of bodies, things they may be less comfortable doing.

Since Garrett often lines up to the open end of the Browns defense (away from the opposing TE), the Steelers may decide to run counter at him, where he will be kicked by a pulling guard. Or they may line up in a “heavy” personnel grouping, like 12 (one back, two tight ends), which would force Garrett to play a 9-technique outside one of the TEs. They could then trade the opposite tight end and flip him to Garrett’s side, where Garrett would have to align inside of him and would have to deal with a down-block on power run plays. This is something he’s not accustomed to as an edge player. If the Steelers don’t like the matchup of James and/or Grimble down-blocking Garrett (I wouldn’t blame them), they could use Nix as an H-back and employ him as a wing outside the TE to achieve a similar look. They could also crack him out of tightly-packed “bunch” sets to run sweep to the perimeter. The goal would be to give Garrett a bunch of different looks and to send a host of big bodies at him to make him as uncomfortable as possible.

This is just one idea how the Steelers might game-plan to exploit the Browns 4-3 front with their run game. Whatever they decide, they will seek to neutralize the strengths of the Browns run defense while simultaneously exploiting its weaknesses from both a scheme and personnel perspective.

STEP TWO: WHAT’S THE COVERAGE?

Gregg Williams is an aggressive guy who likes to blitz and play cover-1 (man to man with a single free safety). In 2017, injuries and personnel deficiencies forced him to play more cover-2 and cover-3 zone than he prefers. The Browns then drafted Ohio State corner Denzel Ward in the first round and have added speed and athleticism to their secondary. This would signal an intention to allow Williams to return to his aggressive nature.

Like all teams, the Steelers will have a host of coverages “beaters” in their passing attack. They will run double slant and double post against cover-2, slant-flat and four verticals against cover-3 and wheel and mesh against cover-1. These are fairly standard routes. The trick in game-planning won’t be the routes, necessarily, but the formations used to create favorable matchups within those routes, especially against cover-1.

Let’s go back to the run game for a second. If the Steelers use double-tight sets or use Nix as an H-back with a tight end, they will have seven-man blocking surfaces with eight gaps to defend. The 4-3 front employs seven players to defend those eight gaps. Naturally, the Browns would have to walk a safety down (Jabrill Peppers, likely) to defend the eighth gap. This leaves a single-high safety, which could very well mean cover-1. The Steelers might favor these types of sets not because of the advantage they get in the run game but because it could mean Cleveland has to play man coverage on Antonio Brown.

The staff might like Brown matched up outside against a particular defender. Cleveland could anticipate this and shadow Brown with their best corner. So what? Ward, the rookie, suffered a back injury in the third pre-season game. Back injuries affect hip movement and change of direction ability. Not exactly the sort of thing you want when covering Antonio Brown. Terrance Mitchell and T.J. Carrie, the teams #2 and #3 corners, are simply no match for AB. What then? Maybe Cleveland will try to disrupt AB’s release by pressing and jamming him at the line. If the Steelers anticipate this, they may insert a host of motions to get him moving before the snap. This makes it harder for corners to jam and makes covering crossing or deep “in” routes difficult. The Steelers could do similar things on the other side with JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is no prize in man coverage himself. In game-planning, the Steelers may look for ways to formation Cleveland into man-coverage schemes because of the favorable matchup of our wide receivers on their corners.

Williams may not take the bait and may opt to play cover-3 zone to these run-heavy formations instead. He then risks Big Ben picking his defense apart with a steady diet of underneath throws and deep shots up the seam off of play-action. Cover-3 requires a rangy free safety who can cover both seams simultaneously (Mike Mitchell detractors, insert snark here). Is Browns free safety Damrious Randall that guy? I suspect not. Pick your poison, Cleveland.

Either way, the Steelers should game-plan for the contingency that Williams will play cover-1 and blitz Big Ben. This will call for them to move their chess pieces around the board, seeking to exploit Cleveland’s biggest weakness.

Jabril Peppers is a fine tackler and an aggressive run defender, but how good is he if forced to play man coverage on AB or JuJu or even James Washington in the slot? If the Steelers align one of those guys inside and the Browns swap the alignment of Peppers and their corner, putting Peppers outside and the corner in the slot, can we get Justin Hunter outside on Peppers? That’s a favorable deep-ball matchup for us. Pro football is about matchups more than anything else. If the Browns want to play man coverage, expect the Steelers to game-plan to swing the matchups in their favor.

Whatever Williams decides to do, Randy Fichtner should have an answer. The Steelers have options in the passing game. A veteran quarterback who can pick apart zone coverage and an elite receiving corps that creates mismatches versus man. It all shapes up as a huge advantage for the Steelers. Provided...

STEP THREE: PASS PROTECTION

... we can protect the passer.

Before we get too excited at the prospect of Big Ben lighting up the scoreboard, let’s remember this: we have to protect him. Cover-1 means the blitz is coming, and there’s also that Garrett fellow to deal with. How might the Steelers game-plan to keep QB7 on his feet?

The easiest way to handle the blitz is with a combination of protection changes, which would be made at the line by Big Ben, hot routes (again on Ben) or with personnel, such as keeping a running back or tight end in to block.

The Steelers will chart all of the blitzes they’ve seen from the Browns this pre-season and last regular season. They may even go back and look at blitzes Williams used in his previous stops as DC, like in New Orleans (that sort of due diligence is necessary, especially in the first game of the season when anything is possible). Mike Munchack will work with Fichtner, who in turn will work with Big Ben on recognizing the blitzers and checking to the right protection for each blitz. These checks may include “BOB” schemes (Big-on-Big, which is a man scheme) or, more likely, three, four or even five-man slide schemes, which utilize area blocking. Teams prefer slide protections against the blitz because of all the loops, stunts and switches defenses employ. Rather than blocking a DT who may be slanting away from the guard, a slide protection would instead require the guard to block the B-gap. If the DT comes to the B-gap, the guard blocks him. If he slants away and a backer comes, he blocks the backer. It’s a fairly simply concept on paper but it requires great recognition and communication when the bullets are flying.

As for dealing with Garrett, chances are pretty good Fichtner will provide help to his OTs in the form of a tight end or running back who either stays in the entire time or chips Garrett before releasing into his pattern. The game-plan will likely include four and five-man route concepts depending on how much help Marcus Gilbert and Big Al need. Ideally, the Steelers would like to handle Garrett one-on-one as much as possible so they can release the back or use him to help against the blitz. Having to double Garrett makes us weaker elsewhere in the passing game. It’s a big week for the Steeler OTs in that regard.

If I were Fichtner, I would lean heavily on Rosie Nix this week. He could be an asset in the run game blocking Garrett or the Browns LBs, and in the passing game he could be used in blitz-pickup or to help on Garrett. He’s not great as an outlet receiver but he’s not terrible, either. Plus, with Lev Bell yet to report to camp as of this writing (Monday afternoon), he could take on the workload of the young backs (Conner and Samuels) as Big Ben’s personal protector.

STEP FOUR: INTANGIBLES AND ADJUSTMENTS

Lastly, the game plan must account for adjustments and intangibles. For those of you still reading, first, thank you (I know this is long), and second, I’ll be brief.

Here are some quick examples of adjustments we must consider:

  • What will we do if they show us a front or coverage we haven’t prepared for?
  • What will we do if one of our key players goes down? (knock on wood)
  • What if Plan A isn’t working? What’s Plan B? Plan C? Plan D?
  • How will the second half plan differ from the first? What adjustments should we anticipate from them at halftime, and how should we counter them?

And here are some intangibles, meaning things that are unique to this game that could affect the outcome, that must be addressed:

  • Todd Haley. How much of our system has he given to Gregg Williams (likely, a lot). Do we need to change certain code words, tendencies, calls, hand signals, etc?
  • Le’Veon Bell. Will he show up? Will he be ready? What kind of shape is he in? What packages are we going to try to use him in? Is he a part of the five-wide stuff? Does he even know the adjustments that have been made from Haley’s offense to Fichtner’s? And if not Bell, what then?
  • Weather. Are we prepared for heat and humidity? For rain? For wind? How could the weather affect the game-plan?

...

All of this, and I haven’t even touched on things like situational football or tempo packages. Game-planning requires preparation for every conceivable situation that could arise during a football game. It is the work of men with a yeoman’s attention to detail and a chess-masters eye for planning, advantage and exploitation. Randy Fichtner gets his first shot at it this week against the man he worked under for six seasons. If the season opener wasn’t compelling enough, that storyline should make this fascinating.

Go Steelers!