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Steelers Vertex: How the Steelers threw their way to a come-from-behind victory

After scoring no offensive points in the first half, the Steelers relied on a pass heavy attack to overcome the halftime deficit.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

We’re back at it again this week, so let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

The topic at hand this week is the Steelers relying almost solely on the pass in order to get them back into the game and secure the victory against the Ravens. Of course, the defense did there part in putting the Steelers in a great place early in the second half, but when the offense was on the field it was all about Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

The statistics for this game show how the Steelers put the offense in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger in the second half to get them back into the game and ultimately emerge victorious. In the first drive coming out of halftime, the Steelers threw fourth straight passes before having to punt. After gaining 24 yards on the first play to JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers had three straight incompletions before a punt.

But on the Ravens first offensive play, Alex Highsmith’s interception changed everything.

After a 3-yard run which was tied for the Steelers longest run of the second half, Ben Roethlisberger hit Eric Ebron for an 18-yard touchdown.

On the next drive which resulted in a James Conner touchdown, the Steelers ran 10 plays. The breakdown was three rushing attempts for -1 yards, a sack for -7 yards, and 6 pass plays which were 6 completions for 65 yards. The drive also included a 20-yard pass interference penalty.

So following the Highsmith interception, Ben Roethlisberger went seven for seven for 83 yards to take the Steelers from trailing by 10 points to up by four.

When the Steelers got the ball the next time with a four point lead, they ended up with a three and out where there was a running play for 1 yard, an incompletion, and a pass for no gain. Once the Ravens regained the lead on the ensuing possession, the passing attack came back to life.

After an incompletion on a long attempt to Chase Claypool, Ben Roethlisberger completed his next seven passes for 45 yards and was aided by 35 yards in penalties from a facemask and a pass interference. On the game-winning drive, the Steelers threw the ball on every play.

For the Steelers to get back into the game, Ben Roethlisberger had a second half of 17 completions on 22 attempts for 151 yards. With three of his five incompletions coming on the first drive, Roethlisberger finished the game 16 of 19 for 134 yards and 2 touchdowns. As for the running game, the Steelers only had seven rushes for 6 yards in the second half.

So how did the Steelers turn it around from only having 22 passing yards on 4 of 10 completions in the first half? For the answer to that question, we’ll have to check the film…

The Film Line:

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has often talked about the offense being willing to take what the defense gives them, and that hasn’t been a bad idea most of the season. Facing the Baltimore Ravens defense, however, there wouldn’t be much given.

2nd quarter, 13:33. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Ravens were willing to give the Steelers underneath routes, just like the Titans, but the Ravens have better cornerbacks, a better pass rush and Patrick Queen at linebacker. This play was one of the few early passes to actually gain yards.

2nd quarter, 7:24. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers moved Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool around early in this game, trying to get one of them going. This was Johnson’s only target of the first half, a good double move that Marcus Peters defends perfectly. Peters is really good defending deep routes, he can run with receivers, get physical with them, play the ball and recover well when beaten.

And it wasn’t just Diontae Johnson he shut down on deep routes.

1st quarter, 3:54. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Claypool makes a strong outside move and Ben Roethlisberger throws the ball, but Marcus Peters shuts down that outside move, and Claypool can’t catch up to the ball.

The Ravens had Peters and Jimmy Smith playing great on the outside, Marlon Humphrey stifling JuJu Smith-Schuster inside with his strength and strong technique on underneath routes, and their corners were supported by smart play from both the inside linebackers and safeties. There really was nothing being given the Steelers could take. Couple that with a Chase Claypool fumble and a total of ten passes being thrown in the first half and the Steelers went into the locker room having tested but not solved the Ravens defense.

When they came out of the locker room for the second half, they brought an answer with them, a weapon that the Steelers of the 1990’s utilized to neutralize linebackers and attack the defense’s depth.

3rd quarter, 13:27. Eric Ebron is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

A simple underneath route, like the first clip in this article, with one big difference. There is no running back in the backfield and the linebackers are covering wide receivers, not sitting in middle zones. Furthermore, with three cornerbacks and 4 wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (third receiver from the top of the screen) is being covered by those linebackers, and that mismatch draws both linebackers and a safety to Smith-Schuster, allowing Eric Ebron an easy catch and run for a touchdown.

The Ravens can’t defend JuJu Smith-Schuster with a linebacker, and the Steelers other change on this play, Ray-Ray McCloud in as the 4th receiver, forces the Ravens to put a corner on McCloud due to his quickness. The Ravens 4th cornerback in week 8 was 5’8” Terrell Bonds, undrafted out of Tennessee State in 2018 who played in the AAF before joining the Ravens practice squad. His first snaps on defense in the NFL would come in Week 8. He would commit a costly pass interference penalty, but more importantly, the Ravens now only had one linebacker in the middle of the field.

The Steelers would also stack their wide receivers to stop Marlon Humphrey from jamming Smith-Schuster, and when the Ravens started defending that with Humphrey taking the inside route and Peters the outside route, the Steelers had control of the matchups. They exploited that control really well, and it best shows up in the final two plays of their 4th quarter touchdown drive to take the lead.

4th quarter, 8:18. Chase Claypool is the receiver on the line of scrimmage to the bottom of the screen, JuJu Smith-Schuster is lined up behind him.

Claypool just gets in Humphrey’s way, and the dime linebacker is too far away to help, Marcus Peters is not a great tackler, and he opts to watch JuJu Smith-Schuster gain 11 yards in the redzone on a very simple play.

4th quarter, 7:32. Chase Claypool is the receiver on the line of scrimmage to the bottom of the screen, Ray-Ray McCloud is lined up behind him.

This is the only play the Steelers used McCloud behind Claypool in a stack, and it works perfectly. Humphrey is responsible for any inside route, and with no inside route he drops to safety and the safety picks up the deeper route. Marcus Peters is responsible for the first outside route, and that leaves him underneath covering Ray-Ray McCloud, and with McCloud’s quickness, he has to play him tight. That leaves Chase Claypool deep with a safety covering him.

A lot of credit is being given to the no-huddle offense for the comeback in this game, but the truth is the Ravens have a great defense and had a great game plan for neutralizing the Steelers offense. With a defensive touchdown bypassing a Steelers drive and injuries on the defensive line leading to long run-heavy Ravens drives, the Steelers didn’t get much opportunity to test the Ravens defense early on, but by the end of the first half they had used stack formations to get releases, and empty sets to clear out linebackers. When they put it all together early in the third quarter and saw it would work, they brought out the no-huddle.

Once the Steelers had the tools to beat the Ravens defense in place, they gave Ben Roethlisberger those tools and let him go to work, using no huddle to keep the Ravens from adjusting their strategy mid-drive.

The Point:

The Steelers awful offensive start in Week 8 was due to a combination of factors. The Ravens defense had a great game plan and executed it really well. Also, the Steelers offense had only 4 drives in the first half and their opening drive was cut off at three plays due to a fumble. The Steelers took the entire first half to test the Ravens defense, and in the third quarter found the right strategy to best get the job done. They took out their running back, stacked receivers to change the matchups, and relied on Ben Roethlisberger to put in the right routes and make the right reads to bring home a victory. Once the Steelers identified the weakness, it was in their best interest to stick with it as long as it continued to work and they needed to points to secure the win.