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The Steelers’ offense finally starts to show some direction coming off the bye

On the Steelers first drive of week 3, they showed a lot of new wrinkles

NFL: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers brought in quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to help guide the development of the Steelers three young quarterbacks. But they also brought him in to help with reworking their offense to bring in more creativity into the Steelers offensive pay design.

One of the most consistent reminders of the Steelers bland offensive design was their consistent struggles to score on the opening drives of games. As BTSC’s resident Stat Geek reminds us, the Steelers haven’t scored a touchdown on an opening drive since week 15 of 2018. The 2019 Steelers only scored on two opening drives, both field goals. The first two weeks of the 2020 season the Steelers failed to score on opening drives, meaning that the Steelers had all of 6 points on their last 20 opening drives when they walked onto Heinz Field to face the Houston Texans. A 0.3 points per drive average is incredibly bad, and it was consistently putting the Steelers in rough spots to start games.

That opening drive of week 3 would end with a field goal, but the plays the Steelers ran were not ones you would have seen in 2018, and it shows the mentality behind the changes the Steelers are making to their offense.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 14:06. Eric Ebron in in motion to start the clip, to the top of the screen.

I know I said we’d see different things, but you’ll have to be patient. The Steelers put both tight ends on one side and the wide receivers to the other, but Marlon Humphrey doesn’t have a hard time getting to the ball on this quick out route. This play is well covered, Diontae Johnson coming across the middle wouldn’t gain much, and McDonald isn’t open until the ball is thrown and his defenders abandon him to attack the ball.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 14:02. Eric Ebron is lined up in the slot to the top of the screen.

Eric Ebron drops the ball, but he’s wide open. Let’s look at why:

That’s an RPO, a Run-Pass Option. Ben Roethlisberger can hand the ball to James Conner, or he can keep it and throw the ball. You can see the offensive line blocking for the run, but more importantly look at what #55 for the Texans does. He abandons his spot to help defend the Steelers run game, and it clears the room for Ebron’s slant. You can also see Ben Roethlisberger’s lack of comfort in this kind of play, and the kind of pressure RPO’s allow. It adds up to a ball thrown well behind Eric Ebron that he is unable to corral for a catch.

One vanilla play and a poor throw put the Steelers in 3rd and 10 to start the game.

Week 3, 1st quarter, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the top of the screen.

The Steelers get a fresh set of downs off a great finish on the play by Smith-Schuster, but the star of this play is how the Steelers get him so wide open, with the linebackers far away from having any chance to stop the play.

From the bottom of the screen the receivers are Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron. Watch the linebackers, they are tasked with guarding Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool and they are so focused on keeping up with those two that Smith-Schuster has more than 10 yards of room between him and the nearest defenders when he catches the ball. The Texans matched the Steelers 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) with their nickel defense, but Eric Ebron is a mismatch for linebackers, and that creates threat that opens up space.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 13:18. James Conner is the running back.

After their nickel defense was exploited by the Steelers 11 personnel, the Steelers send in Vance McDonald for a wide receiver, and the Texans keep their nickel defense on the field, personnel matching Eric Ebron with a defensive back instead of a linebacker. The Steelers line up McDonald and Ebron on the right side and have them double team J.J. Watt on this outside run. The tight end double team works, and it frees up David DeCastro and Chukwuma Okorafor to combo block the defensive tackle and get a body on a linebacker. James Conner follows Matt Feiler’s pull outside with the linebackers several yards behind him and the free safety has to come make the tackle on this 13 yard run.

With another first down in the bag, the Steelers reach even further into their bag of tricks.

Week 3, 1st quarter, Anthony McFarland is the running back.

This is 20 personnel (2 RBs, 0 TEs), the Steelers have McFarland, fullback Derek Watt and three receivers on the field. One of those receivers is Ray-Ray McCloud, and he runs an end around that pulls linebacker #41, Zack Cunningham across the field with him. Derek Watt goes with McCloud, and that pulls #55 Benardick McKinney into the middle.

Anthony McFarland cuts back and gains 7 yards, but look at the left side of the screen, the Steelers right side of the line has a massive run lane, and with Chase Claypool getting a push on Cunningham, it might have been an even bigger play if McFarland doesn’t cut back. This is a Matt Canada play. The defense is being pushed in two directions at once, and it makes it easier to set up blocks and open lanes.

Week 3, 1st quarter, James Conner is the running back.

Two plays later the Steelers go even bigger, sending Jerald Hawkins in as an eligible tackle and only 1 wide receiver on the field for a first and 10 with the Steelers run game working well. The Steelers run play action with Roethlisberger under center, and again the linebackers start backpedaling once they see it’s a pass and that leaves James Conner all alone for his second 13 yard gain of the drive.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 10:18. Vance McDonald is in the middle of the bunch to the bottom of the screen, on the line of scrimmage.

The Texans, once again, counter the Steelers 12 (1 RB, 2 TEs) package with nickel, but this time the Steelers throw the ball, because while Eric Ebron is well known as a mismatch creator, Vance McDonald, while not a good route runner, is a top athlete for a tight end, and is difficult for a linebacker to cover.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 9:38. Jaylen Samuels is the running back.

This is on third and 2, the Steelers run an RPO and Jaylen Samuels gains one yard. While it is worth questioning having Jaylen Samuels run the ball here, it isn’t the real story of the play.

This is very similar to the RPO the Steelers ran on the second play of the drive, when Roethlisberger threw behind Ebron. If you watch Roethlisberger on this play, something should stand out to you. He isn’t reading the defense after the snap, when the ball comes to him he is already committed to the run play. If you go look back at the Ebron slant above, you can Roethlisberger isn’t making reads post snap there either. Ben Roethlisberger is making his run/pass reads pre-snap.

That’s not a surprising thing when you consider the Steelers are teaching a 38 year old dog these brand new tricks. The problem on this play is the linebackers are all biting on the run before the handoff, and Eric Ebron beats the slot corner on his slant. Ebron was open here, and the run was doomed to fail, but Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t looking, he had already committed to the run, and the Steelers settled for a field goal.

The Steelers offense showed how it can use their two tight ends to create mismatches and space for other players, and how they can exploit when teams match Ebron with a defensive back. They showed creative formations and used misdirection, not to mention Derek Watt seeing the field before injury ended his day. But the biggest changes are centered on Ben Roethlisberger, who was under center multiple times, ran play action and run/pass options.

So while we look at his production and film and question just how far back he is, it is important to know that he isn’t just coming back, the Steelers are pushing him into new, and uncomfortable territory. The early returns have been good, and they should only get better the more familiar and comfortable he gets. Hopefully the Steelers had time to work on accomplishing that in their impromptu and makeshift bye week.