The Steelers have 4 really good receivers on their team, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool make up a young and talented group. Each of those receivers is currently averaging more than 30 yards per game. That stands out because the Steelers have never had 4 wide receivers end a season averaging 30+ yards a game.
That’s a strength for the offense, as defenses are hard pressed to field 4 cornerbacks that can handle a talented receiver, so the Steelers are well equipped to create mismatches against any defense.
When head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about James Washington not being targeted this week when he was a major player in week 6, Tomlin responded: “Oftentimes we’re willing to let the opponent determine who the hot hand is.” Meaning the Steelers look at the coverage and throw to the guys the defense isn’t focusing on as much.
The Titans really took that to heart, and as the Steelers showed they would take what the Titans defense gave them, the Titans carefully shaped what they gave the Steelers, from the very first play.
1st quarter, 15:00.
A few things to notice. First the cornerbacks are 8 yards off the line of scrimmage, second the linebackers are 5 yards off the line and drop slightly at the snap. The Titans are giving the Steelers underneath routes and taking away deep balls. At the same time the defensive line isn’t trying to get off of blocks and get to the quarterback, they are driving the pocket back and looking to get their hands up to deflect a pass. It works, and the ball falls incomplete.
1st quarter, 14:56. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the top of the screen.
On second down the Titans drop their middle linebacker deeper and the Steelers hit a quick pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster for 7 yards.
1st quarter, 14:10. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
The Titans go man on third and 3 and Diontae Johnson beats his defender outside for a fresh set of downs.
You can see what the Titans saw, and over the course of the game the cornerbacks playing off with linebackers in the middle became a huge story in the game, for example, later in that same drive.
1st quarter 12:22. James Conner is the wide receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Yes, you heard that right, James Conner is the outside receiver. the receiver on the other side is Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers come out in 22 personnel, and shift to 5 wide with Chase Claypool as the only receiver on the field. Eric Ebron is the slot receiver next to James Conner, and he draws attention, freeing up room for Conner to run a slant that gains 4 yards. If the outside linebacker stays with Ebron a second longer before passing him off, James Conner likely has a big gain here.
And that was the crux of the Tennessee defense, the linebackers had to play very smart football and keep the damage to a minimal level on the short, inside routes for their defensive scheme to work. They did a really good job on most plays.
The Steelers vast majority of throws were underneath routes, taking what the defense gave them.
2nd quarter, 0:57. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
On this play the Titans don’t have any linebacker help to the middle, there’s no one there to help defend the slant. Because of that, the corner over pursues and Johnson is able to reverse direction and score.
2nd quarter, 14:22. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.
The Titans are in man coverage, and to start the play they show a 2-deep safety look. At the snap the safety on Smith-Schuster’s side drops to the deep middle and the far side safety comes up into a robber position. When Ben Roethlisberger sees the Titans safety running away from Smith-Schuster, he throws this ball and you can see, at the end of the play, both safeties arrive, too late to help.
Ben Roethlisberger was seeing the field and making good decisions in the first half. The big difference between the first and second half shows up in one pretty telling stat. The Steelers threw 6 passes that travelled in the air over 15 yards on Sunday, 4 in the first half, and two late in the game when the score was 27-24.
In fact, the only deep pass thrown with the Steelers up by two or more scores was the interception at the end of the half. When the Steelers were up by more than one score, they took their foot off the gas, just taking what the defense gave them, and the results weren’t good.
3rd quarter, 8:53. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Seven yards on third and 10 doesn’t cut it, but the Titans aren’t giving the Steelers mare than that.
The Titans are following a script from their former defensive coordinator and legendary Steelers coach Dick LeBeau, the Titans want to make the Steelers make underneath throws and then hit the receivers. The difficulty facing this kind of defense should be well known to Steeler fans. If you can’t get chunks of yardage, and the passing game is all short passes, then a single mistake, a dropped pass, a miscommunication on a route, a run for a loss, any of those can scuttle a drive. The Titans don’t have the same talent the Steelers had running that defensive philosophy, but Vrabel is also mixing in some of the strategies Bill Belichick used against Ben Roethlisberger, including not going for sacks as much as getting into his throwing lanes.
Like they did on the interception in the third quarter.
3rd quarter, 3:49.
As soon as Roethlisberger sees the middle linebacker blitz and the outside linebacker cover Eric Ebron he knows he has Diontae Johnson open. But he also has a defender in that passing lane looking to tip the football, and the Titans come away with the ball.
4th quarter, 7:31. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.
This is how you move the ball against this defense if you only take what they give you. A great job by Smith-Schuster to pick up the first down, but he takes a pretty good hit to get it. The real solution when the defense is using your own strategy against you is to mix it up, in this case, create openings and get the ball downfield.
4th quarter, 7:05. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.
The Steelers create an opening for Smith-Schuster with the route combination on his side. the Titans have the linebackers 5 yards off the line, in the most common look the Titans gave the Steelers all game. But this time the Steelers don’t throw a quick underneath route.
First look at Diontae Johnson to the top of the screen, setting for a screen. Meanwhile the path of both Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron have them running right at the next outside defender like they are blocking for that screen.
That causes the outside corner to step up to Johnson, and as soon as he does, this happens.
This 28 yard reception was the longest play for the Steelers offense in the game, and it flipped the field and helped put the Steelers in scoring position. That would all come to naught when a penalty on 3rd and 2 and an interception the next play ruined what looked like a game sealing drive for the Steelers.
That interception at the end was the result the Steelers had been hoping to avoid from the moment the second half started until the Titans made it a 3 point game, but sitting back and letting the Titans dictate their offensive game plan was worse. When the Steelers were getting good first down runs from James Conner to set up shorter third downs the offense was able to move the ball, but when the Titans started shutting Conner down, the Steelers offense couldn’t dink and dunk their way to scores anymore.
On a team with four receivers that aren’t just good, but also bring big play threat, to settle for short gains all day and throw all of one pass to Chase Claypool isn’t just taking what you are given, it’s letting the opposition determine your offensive game plan. The Steelers need to use the weapons they have, and use the creativity they frequently show to get those playmakers open, no matter what the score is.