The Steelers fell short again in a close game to open the season 0-3. Last week we looked at plays that showed the Steelers were just a few plays away from winning football. This week we are going to tackle a word that gets thrown around a lot when a team is 0-3 — identity.
Let’s start on defense, first play of the game.
This isn’t badly defended. The offense just executes at a very high level and gets 5 yards for it. Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt face double teams right off the bat, Javon Hargrave is pulled left by the counter action and blocked by the right guard, Tuitt tries to slide into the run lane, but the tackle dives into his path and George Kittle pushes him inside. That same tackle is able to get up enough to stop Mark Barron from undercutting the run. T.J. Watt faces the pulling LG while Devin Bush takes on the FB and the DBs are held off for a second by Marquise Goodwin’s fake reverse. Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick turn what could have been a lot more yards into a 5 yard gain.
You can demand that players just win these battles anyways, but this is a case where execution on offense just wins the play.
This early game execution and physicality takes its toll on a defense over time, and you see that in this run from the 4th quarter.
Here Kittle blocks Tuitt 1 vs. 1, Heyward and McCullers are both blocked by single lineman, T.J. Watt is taken out of the play by the left tackle and even with the pulling guard falling down Bush is just short of making the play.
By the end of the game the Steelers could not contain the 49ers run game anymore, and that opened up everything else they wanted to do. The play after this one was a play action pass for 25 yards. While this drive would end with a missed pitch and a turnover, the next drive San Francisco would drive down the field for the winning score.
Let’s take a look at the Steelers run game. From the first quarter, a second and 5 run.
Here the DT DJ Jones gets a good jump on the silent count and drives Maurkice Pouncey backwards and James Conner trips over his own player. But even if he hadn’t, where is Conner going to run here? David DeCastro and Matt Feiler double team DeForest Buckner but don’t really move him, and Arik Armstead drives Vance McDonald into what should have been the hole.
It is my opinion that if Conner doesn’t have to hop over to Rudolph you can afford to have Alejandro Villanueva assist Pouncey and Conner would be right behind Foster for at least a yard or two gained. But really, look at how McDonald blocks Armstead, he just waits for him. He’s not attacking Armstead, he’s waiting for him. That causes him to be high and wrestle with Armstead instead of being lower and able to drive Armstead back. Look across the line, how many of the Steelers offensive lineman are the lower man?
Again, look at pad level at the moment of contact. This play still gets 5 yards, because the Steelers still have a lot of talented Linemen, but they aren’t driving defenders off the ball, they aren’t moving the defense and enforcing their will.
A lot is being said about the demise of the offensive line and Conner not being good enough. What I see isn’t that. I see a team that has their O-Line in 2-point stances on every snap, and Conner not moving forward until he’s taken a step to the QB and gotten the ball.
Basically, I see an offense that was designed to help protect Ben Roethlisberger and rely on him to win the game. It didn’t work when Ben was playing this year, and it isn’t working with Mason Rudolph.
Look at the first play of the game again.
Does that play look familiar? It’s a basic counter-trap play. One the Steelers used to run for Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker several times every game. Notice the 49ers in three-point stances, being the lower man at the point of impact and exploding up into the defender.
That’s the identity the Pittsburgh Steelers used to have, an identity that led the Steelers to wins without a Hall of Fame caliber QB, wearing down defenses and setting up play-action passes for big gains. If the Steelers are going to turn this season around, they need to find that kind of identity again.
One last play I want to show.
3rd and 5, one of many.
Another thing you have likely heard about the Steelers in week 3 is that Mason Rudolph was not making good reads. If you listen to some good sources, you probably heard that clarified that while he made good pre-snap reads, he wasn’t able to adjust to changes after the snap.
Here is a fantastic example of that problem. Here’s the scene before the snap:
This looks like man coverage, with James Washington’s (slot, bottom of the screen) defender starting to back off and give a bigger cushion. If that is the case, then Diontae Johnson’s (bottom of screen) in-route should have a pretty good chance at converting the first down.
That’s not what happens. It’s a zone blitz with the two players that look like they are manned on Vance and Conner rushing, DE Ronald Blair dropping into a hook zone on the right side (directly into the path of Johnson’s route) and Dee Ford tasked with getting across the field to cover Vance McDonald. Vance McDonald was wide open, while Diontae Johnson would have had to fight through a CB and a DL to get the first down. Mason Rudolph doesn’t even flinch, he drops and throws right to Diontae Johnson, his pre-snap read.
I ended up deciding to focus on the run-game identity for this week’s film room, but I almost focused entirely on this issue. Because they got off the field several times on third down by switching coverage after the snap, and Rudolph just threw to his pre-snap read anyway.
The film is out there, every other team is going to attack Mason Rudolph the same way, forcing him to make post-snap reads on key downs. If the Steelers continue to run an offense designed around the QB being the entire engine for the offense they will continue to fail on third downs, and the defense will continue to face too many snaps, and the losses will pile up.
The identity of the Pittsburgh Steelers has to change.