Boy, to have been a fly on the wall in the Pittsburgh locker room at halftime in Baltimore on Sunday.
The Steelers, after being thoroughly out-played and out-toughed in the first half by the arch-rival Ravens, authored a second half for the ages, storming back from a 17-7 deficit to win in thrilling fashion, 28-24. Whatever was said in that locker room, the Steelers emerged a different team. Their dormant offense came to life, the defensive front contained a Baltimore rushing attack that had been unstoppable and they got big contributions from their stars and role players alike. While I can’t be sure what exact adjustments the coaching staff implemented, here are some of the more noticeable changes from that memorable second half.
The 3-5-3 Wrinkle
There were a lot of “play-of-the-game” candidates by the defense on Sunday, but the one that kick-started the comeback was an interception by rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith on the Ravens first possession of the third quarter.
The Steelers aligned on the play in a 3-5-3 configuration they had rarely (if ever) used this season. They had run it in the first half as an adjustment to Baltimore’s 21 personnel grouping. When fullback Patrick Ricard (42) entered the game, the Steelers brought on Highsmith and subbed out a defensive back. They were in this look for four first-half snaps, and played cover-3 from it with a single-high safety.
Baltimore ran their first play of the third quarter from a 22 personnel look with Ricard at fullback and two tight ends on the field. The Steelers countered with the 3-5-3 but with Highsmith aligned to the fullback this time (he is the defender on the end of the line of scrimmage to the top of the formation in the GIF below). The Ravens called a simple play-action pass with the tight end and fullback running a high-low concept on the flat defender, who in this case was Highsmith. Quarterback Lamar Jackson must have anticipated Highsmith grabbing the low route from the fullback and attempted to throw over him to the deeper out by the tight end. But the Baltimore receivers did a poor job spacing the route, Jackson under-threw it and Highsmith fell off of the fullback to make the interception:
This wasn’t a halftime adjustment, per se, since the Steelers did show this look in the first half. But it was a smart move to align Highsmith to the passing strength of the 22 personnel formation so that corner Joe Haden could defend the single wide receiver and safety Terrell Edmunds could roll up on the opposite side of the formation. And the 3-5-3 was a creative look from defensive coordinator Keith Butler as a response to Baltimore’s heavier personnel groupings. It paid big dividends on Sunday. In addition to Highsmith’s interception, the 3-5-3 produced Bud Dupree’s strip-sack of Lamar Jackson inside the 10 yard line that thwarted a Ravens’ scoring drive late in the first quarter.
Highsmith’s interception breathed life back into a flagging Steelers unit that needed a spark. Kudos to the rookie for making the big play and to his coordinator for scheming up the look that made it possible.
Attack the middle of the field in the passing game
The Steelers’ first-half passing attack largely consisted of some quick throws to the perimeter and a bunch of heave-and-pray deep balls. The long vertical routes did produce two pass interference penalties on Baltimore defenders but Ben Roethlisberger was unable to complete a single one. Baltimore’s safeties began to back off and widen to help on the deep sideline routes, leaving the middle of the field wide open. Roethlisberger largely ignored it. He went to the break 4-11 passing for a paltry 24 yards.
The Steelers began to exploit the middle of the field immediately after Highsmith’s interception, however. They quickly found tight end Eric Ebron on a crossing route that narrowed Baltimore’s lead to 17-14. No Raven came within five yards of Ebron as he caught the football and galloped into the end zone:
Roethlisberger attacked the middle more aggressively from there on out, including a couple of throws to Juju Smith-Schuster on the subsequent scoring drive that gave the Steelers a 21-17 lead. This slant that produced a 1st-and-goal was a beauty:
Roethlisberger went 17-21 for 158 yards with two touchdowns in the second half, engineering yet another memorable comeback in his remarkable career. Adjusting the game-plan at halftime to attack the middle of the field was the catalyst he needed to get the offense going.
Speaking of catalysts, the other adjustment offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner made that paid big dividends was the decision to go to the no-huddle. The Steelers used some “sugar” huddle in the first half, which is a quick huddle close to the line of scrimmage, but did not go to an on-the-ball tempo until the second half. When they did, it provided Roethlisberger ample time to diagnose the defense pre-snap while keeping Baltimore from getting into specific substitution packages.
On Pittsburgh’s eight-play, 80 yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter that reclaimed the lead after Baltimore had gone ahead 24-21, the Steelers huddled just once, on a 3rd and 1 play. Every other play featured a no-huddle empty set. While Baltimore helped the cause with a facemask penalty and a defensive pass interference, Roethlisberger went 7-8 for 45 yards on the drive, finishing it with a pin-point throw on an out-cut to Chase Claypool in the right corner of the end zone. Credit Fichtner with ceding control of the offense to Roethlisberger on the drive and allowing him to operate from a tempo where he has always appeared comfortable.
Better technique on the defensive line
Once starting nose tackle Tyson Alualu left the game in the first quarter with an injury, Baltimore gashed the Steelers in the run game. The Ravens rushed for 179 yards in the first half alone. Part of their run dominance was the fact the Baltimore offensive line was the more physical unit up front, as they were able to move the Steelers off the ball routinely. The Steelers helped them by employing bad technique, however, which is a deadly sin against a rushing attack like Baltimore’s.
Take the play below from early in the second quarter. It’s a simple trap play where the left guard pulls and kicks out Pittsburgh’s right edge defender (in this case T.J. Watt). Watt does a decent job “caging” the block (forcing the runner to cut up inside of him), although he could have closed more aggressively to narrow the back’s running lane. The bigger problem is the interior linemen. Stephon Tuitt, the tackle immediately inside of Watt, foolishly attempts to swim over a double team. This is a low percentage move that exposes his chest. The Ravens take advantage by driving him four yards off the ball. Isaiah Buggs, meanwhile, lined up to Tuitt’s right, gets turned away from the play. The combination of Tuitt being driven off the ball and Buggs getting turned creates a massive running lane for Gus Edwards, who rips through it for a 25 yard gain:
Mike Tomlin, in his post-game news conference, alluded to the fact that the defensive front, and Buggs in particular, were challenged at halftime to step up their play (watch Tomlin’s presser here). The challenge was accepted, as their technique was much better in the second half.
Watch Tuitt and Watt use their hands to get extension, stay square and play flat down the line on this third quarter run from Edwards. While Dupree gets a bit too far upfield here, cornerback Joe Haden does a nice job setting an edge that keeps Edwards from bouncing the play wide. Edwards has to cut back inside, where Tuitt swallows him up for a short gain.
Buggs was the star of perhaps the most decisive play of the game — Baltimore’s 4th and 3 attempt from the Steelers’ eight yard-line with two minutes to play. The Ravens smartly kept the ball in Jackson’s hands on a quarterback draw. But Buggs (lined up directly over the center in the GIF below), pressed the center away, held his ground and then shed the block to wrap Jackson up around the legs as his teammates closed in:
Without the proper technique work, Buggs would likely have picked a side and created a wider seam for Jackson. Instead he stayed square and made the biggest play of his young career. The fact the Steelers were able to tighten up their fundamentals was a big reason the Ravens did not run the ball as well in the second half.
Maintain their discipline versus the read-option scheme
The Steelers were also better after halftime against the read-option scheme. In the first half, in an attempt to force Jackson to make a quick decision on whether to give or pull the football, the Steelers crashed their unblocked defender at the mesh point between Jackson and the running back. Baltimore quickly diagnosed this, and, rather than have Jackson read the edge defender, they let him run up the field and then kicked him out with a pulling lineman.
Here’s an example. This is a GT counter scheme with the backside guard pulling to kick T.J. Watt and the backside tackle wrapping up to block the play-side linebacker. Watt’s aggressive up-field charge creates an easy kick-out for the guard, Tuitt gets washed out of the play and Jackson pulls the ball and runs into the gaping hole for a first down:
In the second half, the Steelers altered their up-field charges just enough to slow Jackson. Here’s a tremendous effort by Watt where he plays both the running back and Jackson at once. His charge is aggressive enough to trick Jackson into thinking he is going to tackle the back, so Jackson pulls the ball and runs inside. But Watt manages to redirect and fall back to make the play:
While Baltimore was creative enough to find other ways to put the Steelers’ edge defenders in conflict, including a wickedly-effective speed option look they broke out on their penultimate drive, the Steelers ability to muddy Jackson’s reads was a big part of their success on defense in the second half.
All said, it was a heck of a job by the coaching staff in terms of their halftime adjustments and a great job by the players of executing both the schemes and the fundamentals. The next time someone chimes in on a BTSC discussion thread about how the Steelers’ coaching staff stinks at in-game adjustments, someone remind them of this performance, please. It was a master class on how to self-correct and find a way to win.