The Steelers got their first win when Cincinnati came to Heinz Field this past Monday, but they did more than that. Questions about Mason Rudolph, Randy Fichtner and the defense were answered in a positive way. Everything’s not perfect, the Steelers are still a work in progress, but they showed progress, and that’s always a good sign.
Devin Bush is adapting to the NFL
He’s right in the middle to start the play.
Here the Bengals go after Bush, starting with play action that Bush has consistently bit on too hard, putting himself in bad positions. Here he plays it better, following the runner, but keeping his angles and options open, and because of that the he is able to get around the guard and isn’t stuck trying to go through him. He makes a great play to cause a loss on the play. Bush is improving, his liabilities are slowly disappearing, and that’s going to put him in position to make more plays.
Mason Rudolph is getting more comfortable
The defense played great, but honestly, the real development was the offense moving the ball and extending drives to help the defense stay fresh and effective.
Notice JuJu Smith-Schuster in motion and the DB following.
Cincinnati is showing man, but on the snap they switch to zone. JuJu is the primary read, because he was ahead of his defender and that should be some easy yards. But with the defense actually playing zone the flat defender is right there, and the CB following JuJu drops into the hook zone right where Diontae Johnson is running his hook route. Rudolph scans through both to Conner, who has slipped through the line underneath the LBs. Conner does the rest.
San Francisco was able to kill drives with this kind of disguised coverage, repeatedly Rudolph threw to his pre-snap read even though the defense wasn’t what he had read and his target wasn’t open. This growth from Mason Rudolph set up the win more than anything else. The 49ers defense had a “Get off the Field” card they used over and over again. The Bengals tried using the same trick and the Steelers converted and extended drives.
Taking over the game
There were a good number of things blamed for the Steelers run game struggles, two of the most popular involve running out of shotgun and the OL being in a 2-point stance. While it wasn’t used a lot in the game, the Steelers did put Rudolph under center for 13 plays, and in this play both guards start with a hand on the grass in a 3-point stance.
Here the Steelers do a few things well in this run, running a counter that works, as the defense moves with the counter action giving the blockers a head start, but they also use James Washington as a lead blocker, even if he doesn’t find a defender to block. This play is from the Steelers last drive of the first half, the point of the game where the run game started rolling and the game started to break open.
Setting up the pass with the run
With the Steelers run game and short passing game moving the ball consistently the Bengals relied more and more on their “Big Base” defense that adds a third DT to their normal 4-3 defense. In this play the Steelers have 2 TEs on the field, and the Bengals counter with their big base. The Bengals send their SS on a blitz leaving the two CBs and a deep safety to defend the crossing routes. In this setup all Rudolph has to do is read the FS and throw to the WR facing 1v1 coverage. Dre Kirkpatrick expects a switch, William Jackson III stays on JuJu and what should have been a 1v1 is instead a wide open target. If you watch closely you can see JuJu watching Kirkpatrick and he cuts his route flatter right as Kirkpatrick commits to the switch. Jackson stays with JuJu and Rudolph throws to Johnson. But if Jackson switches, JuJu would have been open due to the flatter route.
This play is taking advantage of the defense committing to stopping the run and puts JuJu in position to read the DBs and make the play work. It’s a great design and call taking advantage of the Bengals adjustments.
Rudolph’s security blanket
Nick Vannett is on the line, top of the screen.
This is an important play for the Steelers, in a 1st and 20 hole and down a time out from a ridiculous Offensive PI call that was laughably upheld, they get 11 yards on an extended play.
Vannett does a great job of slipping out of his defender’s line of sight and then heading back toward Rudolph for an easy 11 yard catch. This kind of heads up play is what the Steelers had from Heath Miller, and Miller made Ben Roethlisberger’s life much easier and more productive for over a decade. Now Nick Vannett isn’t Heath Miller, but making heads up plays like this one help extend drives and frequently turn bad situations into much better ones.
The Steelers needed a win in Week 4, and they got one, but they did more than that, they showed growth. Growth from Mason Rudolph in his ability to succeed against NFL defenses, growth from Randy Fichtner who went outside of the Ben Roethlisberger offense and was creative in how he attacked the defense and helped his QB. Growth from Devin Bush and the defense.
This all makes the next game even more exciting, when the Ravens come to Heinz Field and give the Steelers another challenge.