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Why the Pittsburgh Steelers offense fell flat in Week 15 vs. Buffalo

Looking at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense in Week 15 on Sunday Night Football.

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

The Steelers lost to Buffalo this past week, and there are plenty of reasons spread over the course of a 60 minute game that wasn’t well played, yet was within reach to the very end.

Today we’ll look at the offense and the struggles Duck Hodges and the Steelers faced going up against one of the best defenses in the NFL and try to figure out why that just happened.

Taking off the training wheels

Facing a great defense with 3 wins under his belt, Devlin Hodges did something I haven’t noticed him do yet this season, he called audibles.

1st quarter, 5:33, 2nd and 8.

The Bills are showing a zero blitz look here, and the corners are creeping back. Devlin Hodges falls for it and calls an audible to counter a blitz with off man coverage only to see the defenders drop and easily cover his play call.

Hodges isn’t ready for this responsibility, but he wasn’t ready to be a starting QB in the NFL, or be the QB of a team with only 2 WRs that deserve offensive snaps. I don’t think it was a bad decision to give him that level of control, facing this team he had to have the ability to get out of a play call that the defense has sniffed out. The Steelers have been playing with house money and winning with an offense held together by practice squad WRs and Duck tape. This was an overdue reality check, as throughout the game the defense baited Hodges and played to his limitations.

Taking away James Washington’s strength

The ways the Bills attacked Devlin Hodges is mirrored in how they guarded James Washington. James Washington has been terrorizing defenses with his strength and contested catches, and Buffalo had a different approach to dealing with him.

1st quarter, 8:57, 3rd and 15. James Washington is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

The defense doesn’t even touch him. They double him and pounce on Hodges’ off target pass, but without physically touching Washington. The Bills play a lot of hands off coverage, but looking through the game, they kept off of James Washington even when they got physical with other WRs. This play went bad for the Steelers, as did the last play of the game when the Bills were playing under Washington and daring Hodges to throw over them. But Hodges and Washington still connected for big gains a couple of times.

2nd quarter, 14:17, 1st and 10.

Here is a much better throw by Hodges, and James Washington shows that he’s improved his route running since last season, while also displaying the overall ball skills that got him drafted in the second round. Devlin Hodges puts the ball in a good location to beat the Bills zone defense.

4th quarter, 3:10, 3rd and 1.

Here James Wqshington shows some speed on a nice corner route and Hodges only slightly under-throws the ball, good enough for a big gain. If you look at Deon Cain (17) you can see Tre-Davious White jam him right at the line, Cain saw a lot of physical defense while James Washington was intentionally left to run his route.

While this strategy did get the Bills burned a few times as Washington nearly matched John Brown’s big day, it also led to two interceptions and no touchdowns. The strategy of removing Washington’s physical strength and ability to fight through defenders to get the ball by just playing off of him and attacking Hodges’ passes worked well, but the fact that Washington recorded his fourth 80+ yard game in the last 6 weeks is a good sign for his development and for Devlin Hodges’ odds of bouncing back next week. In the last 6 games James Washington ranks 13th among all NFL receivers in yards, and 9th in yards per target (5th among players with 30+ targets).

Running is a numbers game

There were two weaknesses that stood out in the Steelers run game against the Bills, the first was Ramon Foster struggling with the agility and speed of the Bills defensive line, and the second was the Bills winning the number game too often with slot corners and safeties cheating into the box and disrupting the Steelers plays. We’re going to look at the second part of that.

3rd quarter, 12:04, 1st and 10. Watch #58 Matt Milano, LB to the left side of the play.

You’ve probably heard people talk about LBs cheating up and teeing off on the run a good bit this season as a defense of the offensive line. A great example of this is Zach Banner’s work on this play. Banner is the big lineman just inside the TE to the left of the screen. His job here is to help establish Nick Vannett’s block on Shaq Lawson (90), and then peel off and block Matt Milano. Milano is really close to the line on this 1st and 10 play, and you can see how fast Banner has to move to even get a piece of his target. That is the hole Benny Snell is supposed to hit. but with the LB cheating up and two DBs pinching that corner, there’s no way to block the four defenders with 3 Steelers and Snell loses a yard.

If you look at the middle of the line the blocks are all made and Snell probably could have gained a few yards following David DeCastro as he drives Tremaine Edmunds (49) backwards.

2nd quarter, 7:57, 1st and 10. James Washington is the WR at the right edge of the screen, Taron Johnson (24) is lined up on him.

Taron Johnson jumps this play at the snap, and James Washington has no shot at blocking him. Without Johnson filling that lane there would have been a huge hole for Conner, instead there was nothing. Again if you look to the middle of the line, the blocks were all there and he could have gotten at least a few yards.

1st quarter, 12:13, 1st and 10.

The first of Conner’s big gains, and he avoids the DB help on this play by running inside and then bouncing outside once he is past #24. He ran to a place where the Steelers had even numbers with the Bills and with a couple of strong blocks by Allejandro Villenueva and Nick Vannett is able to get past the front 7 and pick up 15 yards.

3rd quarter, 12:52, 1st and 10. Micah Hyde (23) is at the bottom right corner of the screen.

Safety Micah Hyde is the DB help on this play and he’s outside of the box. Conner is able to get past the line before having to face Hyde and is able to juke him and pick up 17 yards. This play shows the difference between last year and this year. In 2018 DBs weren’t cheating up and playing the run, they were worried about Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. With DBs playing up into the box, those big open holes are getting filled, and Conner isn’t a player that breaks tackles in the backfield.

Concluding thoughts...

Watching this game I kept wondering how different it would have looked with JuJu Smith-Schuster healthy. Consider that the slot WR was either Tevin Jones, Deon Cain, or Johnny Holton, who played a combined 62 offensive snaps in a game with 59 offensive plays. JuJu has traditionally done very well against off-man defense, and putting him next to Washington in the slot would be a nice combination to see now that Washington is starting to produce.

I’m glad to see Conner running better than he did when he tried to come back in Cleveland, he’s the best runner on this team when he isn’t taking the wrong run lane.

Lastly, I think Devlin Hodges was better in this game than Mason Rudolph was in Cleveland. I’m glad Hodges will start against the Jets and I’m expecting a bounce back game from him.