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Breaking down the touchdown drive that may have saved the Steelers season

Pinned with their heels on their own goal line, the Steelers produced a 97 yard touchdown drive that might have saved their season.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I wrote about how the Steelers needed to find ways to buck their trend of miserable first quarters and start faster, particularly on offense.

So much for that idea.

Mason Rudolph was intercepted on his first throw of the evening, the defense could not defend a simple slant route and the Steelers exited the first fifteen minutes of play trailing a junior varsity Dolphins team 14-0. I did not follow nor have I examined the BTSC Open Thread of the game, but I can only imagine.

Thankfully, there were still forty-five minutes of football remaining, and in that time Mike Tomlin’s crew managed to shake off the lethargy their bye week seemed to induce and put 27 consecutive points on the board. Miami certainly helped the cause, turning the ball over four times and playing arguably the worse third-and-long defense of all-time on a play near the end of the half that resulted in a 45 yard touchdown pass from Rudolph to Diontae Johnson. Blitzing eight? That was some kamikaze defense for the ages. Who did Brian Flores study under? General Tojo?

Still, the Steelers trailed 14-10 at the half, and midway through the third quarter, after Minkah Fitzpatrick’s second interception of the night gave them possession at their own three yard-line, a 97 yard touchdown drive seemed inconceivable. After all, to that point in the contest, Rudolph had gone 11-24 passing for 165 yards, with 45 of those coming on the touchdown Miami had gifted to Dionate Johnson. To make the odds even longer, the last Steelers quarterback not named Ben Roethlisberger to engineer a touchdown drive of ninety of more yards was Kordell Stewart back in 2001 when he hooked up with Bobby Shaw on a 90 yard catch-and-run against the Ravens. Through two-plus quarters Monday evening, Rudolph seemed an unlikely candidate to become the next quarterback to do it.

And yet, with some solid play-calling from offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, good protection from his offensive line, hard running by James Conner and a few big plays from his receivers, Rudolph did just that. In all, the drive took 12 plays, covered all 97 yards and consumed nearly eight minutes of clock. The Steelers took the lead, 17-14, and dominated from there on out.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, it’s not far-fetched to suggest that drive may have saved, for now, the Steelers season. A three-and-out or a short drive there would have likely given Miami excellent field position. With momentum, and a Steelers team still searching for answers on offense, it’s conceivable the Dolphins could have held on to win. A home loss for the Steelers coming out of the bye to an awful Dolphins team would have been devastating to say the least, and at 2-5, would have pretty much put a nail in the coffin of any realistic hopes of making the playoffs. Instead, the team remains in the hunt for both the wild card and the AFC North division title. Funny how quickly circumstances can change.

Let’s look more closely at Rudolph’s best drive as a professional, and at how the Steelers put it together when they needed it most.

1st and 10, -3 yard line, 11:03 3rd qtr

To kick-start the drive, Zach Banner reported as a sixth lineman and joined tight ends Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett in a jumbo package that, by my rough calculations, included approximately 12,000 pounds of blocking for James Conner. Though Conner gained a modest three yards on the first down carry, Fichtner made effective use of the jumbo package overall, as it helped pave the way for 158 rushing yards from a unit that had been averaging roughly half that through the first six games.

On 2nd and 7, Rudolph made a big-boy throw to get the Steelers out of the shadow of their own end zone. With the Steelers in an 11 personnel set versus an eight-man combo coverage, the young quarterback stepped into a fairly cluttered pocket and threw a dart from a yard deep in the end zone to Juju Smith-Schuster who, along with McDonald, was running a double slant concept. The throw hit Smith-Schuster in stride against tight coverage for a first down at the 23:

The Steelers had now achieved the minimum goal for a drive that starts deep in their own territory: gain at least one first down and give the punting unit a chance to flip the field. Now they could set their sights on something more productive, like generating points.

2nd and 20, -13 yard line, 9:06 3rd qtr

Not so fast. A holding penalty on McDonald wiped out a 20 yard run by Conner and put the Steelers back in a hole. Following an incompletion, they faced 2nd and 20 at their own 13. Fichtner returned to 11 personnel and Miami countered by bringing a delayed five-man blitz. Corner Nik Needham, aligned to the bottom of the screen in the GIF below, came off of press coverage on Johnson and was unblocked to the quarterback. It’s unclear whether Rudolph saw the blitz out of the corner of his eye or not. Regardless, he hung in the pocket long enough to allow James Washington to make an “in” cut at the sticks twenty yards down the field, then delivered a strong throw to him just before absorbing a shot from Needham.

This play was impressive for several reasons. First, the offensive line handled the inside stunt from the Dolphins seamlessly, providing Rudolph the time in the pocket he needed to wait for Washington to come open. Second, Rudolph showed real courage hanging in the way he did considering the wicked concussion he received from a hit to the head by Earl Thomas in week five. Any questions about Rudolph’s toughness should have been answered on this play. Finally, Washington made a nice catch with his hands on a ball that was thrown slightly behind him, then turned and fought for the first down among three Miami defenders. For the struggling Washington, this was an important contribution.

1st and 10, -34 yard line, 8:21 3rd

On the next play, Fichtner went heavy again, bringing back the jumbo package and running a counter-gap scheme into the boundary with left guard David DeCastro pulling and kicking the edge player and Vance McDonald pulling behind him to lead on the play-side linebacker. The jumbo package created a mismatch, as the Dolphins walked 230 pound Sam Eguavoen (49) down to set the edge. Eguavoen was manhandled by Vannett, who washed him down with ease. That allowed DeCastro to turn up-field and pick off linebacker Raekwon McMillan (52) while McDonald turned back on Jerome Baker (55). Conner rumbled for fourteen yards. He was untouched for all but the final few.

(I used slow-motion on the GIF to provide an appreciation for how physically dominant the O-Line was on this play. It takes longer to watch but it’s a thing of beauty...)

3rd and 8, +38 yard line, 4:51 3rd

Another run to Conner and a short throw to McDonald garnered a first down in Miami territory, but on a 2nd and 6 play from the Dolphins’ 36 Rudolph was dropped for a loss on an odd bootleg that looked either mistimed or as though it was a broken play. That set up a crucial 3rd and 8 just out of field goal range at the +38.

The Steelers aligned in a 2x2 set with McDonald to the right while Miami countered with the goofy “amoeba” defense they had been messing around with for much of the night. The idea of the amoeba is to disrupt the offensive line’s protection calls by having defenders move around at the line of scrimmage rather than aligning in set positions. If an offensive line is used to setting its protection off of the Mike linebacker, as many do, this could cause confusion.

Experienced units like the Steelers rarely struggle with a gimmick like the amoeba, however, especially one as poorly executed as Miami’s. For starters, the Dolphin defenders were 2-3 yards off of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped. This delayed their pass rush and made it easier for the Steelers’ linemen to kick-step, gain depth and identify who was rushing where. The Dolphins ran a twist stunt and brought Baker (55) into the A-gap. They actually got some penetration with this, as center Maurkice Pouncey was a bit late switching off to pick up Baker. But because Baker started so far off of the ball, he had no chance of disrupting Rudolph’s throw.

Rudolph, for his part, didn’t quite step into the throw (his front foot actually stepped more towards the sideline than at Diontae Johnson, his target) and the ball was a bit short as a result. Johnson, who was running a hitch route just beyond the sticks, did a nice job working back out of his break and cradled the throw in his chest for a big first down.

This was one of multiple clutch plays by Johnson on the evening, including the touchdown at the end of the first half as well as an incredible one-handed catch for a big gain in the second quarter that was wiped out by a bogus offensive pass interference call. Johnson’s combination of quickness, precise route running and good hands have allowed him to establish himself as the team’s #2 receiver behind Smith-Schuster much faster than anticipated. Given the fact he was drafted with capital from the Antonio Brown trade, the swap of Brown for Johnson, at the moment, looks like a slam-dunk for the Steelers.

2nd and 9, +26 yard line, 3:16 3rd

A short throw to Conner gained a yard, setting up 2nd and 9 at the +26. Miami pressed the Steelers receivers at the line of scrimmage in a cover-1 look and brought pressure from both edges. Tackles Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva swallowed up the speed-rushing outside backers while B.J. Finney, filling in for the concussed Ramon Foster, rode his defender wide. Pouncey and DeCastro deftly handled a twist stunt, giving Rudolph a clean pocket from which to throw. He targeted Smith-Schuster, working a wheel concept out of the left slot, against corner Chris Lammons. Watch:

It’s been a rough first half of the season for Juju. He has struggled to separate from man coverage at times and has found less space in which to operate while drawing extra attention as the team’s number one receiver. Juju’s 25 catches for 340 yards through six games didn’t feel like the production of a “number one” guy, leaving some to wonder if his numbers last season weren’t more a factor of being Antonio Brown’s sidekick than a legitimate threat of his own.

Questions about his ability to function as a “number one” may be valid. But make no mistake about it - Juju is a heck of a football player. He is big, strong, physical and, above all, he makes plays. The absence of the uber-talented Brown opposite Juju in the Steelers offense has certainly limited his play-making ability. But Juju is still capable of plays like these, where he high-points the football and simply rips it away from the over-matched Lammons. The result was a touchdown that punctuated the Steelers most impressive drive of the season and gave them a lead they would not relinquish.

In all, the Steelers were 6-7 passing for 70 yards on the drive and they ran it five times for another 27 yards (not including Conner’s 20 yard run wiped out by the hold on McDonald). Fichtner mixed his jumbo package with a variety of looks from 11 and 12 personnel. The jumbo worked because it forced Miami to walk its smaller outside linebackers down to the line of scrimmage to act as edge players, where they were pushed around by the Steelers’ bigger personnel. The Steelers also picked on Miami’s sub-par secondary, routinely winning one-on-one match-ups on the outside. The offensive line was stellar in the run and pass, giving Rudolph time to throw and Conner room to run.

Granted, the Dolphins are a bad football team and the drive finally showed the sort of dominance many Steelers fans had been expecting from the opening kick. The fact it took until the middle of the third quarter to impose their will likely rankled some of the faithful. Still, behind their young quarterback, on a night where they were struggling offensively, 97 yards in 12 plays was darn impressive no matter the opponent.

With the red-hot Indianapolis Colts coming to town next Sunday, the Steelers won’t have long to enjoy this victory. Enjoy it they should, however, because, as winners of three of their last four contests, their playoff hopes, which seemed all but extinguished when it was announced Roethlisberger would undergo season-ending surgery after week two, are still alive. That might not be the case today had the offense not engineered a 97 yard drive that, for now at least, may have saved their season.