The Steelers entered 2020 with hope and vision. Ben Roethlisberger, their star quarterback, was returning and had new weapons in Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool. They invested in a run game that had become predictable by bringing in Matt Canada. The Steelers had a top defense and an offense that looked like it had incredible potential and a dedication to innovation to make sure it reached that potential.
Early returns were good. The Steelers were a top 10 team in rushing yards and touchdowns through their first 5 games, four of those games the Steelers picked up a rushing first down in their final drive to bring out the victory formation and the 5th game was a blowout of Cleveland that ended with Mason Rudolph taking the field. Matt Canada’s influence on the run game was paying off, and it bought Ben Roethlisberger time to shake off the rust and get the passing game rolling.
Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t just doing alright though, he was having one of his better seasons in touchdowns and interceptions, using his experience and leadership to lead his young receivers to success.
So what happened? How did the Steelers go from a top ten rushing team and an offense that was on a franchise record-setting scoring pace to a team that can’t crack 20 points and has as many turnovers as touchdowns the last three games.
To really answer that question, we have to go back to the middle of the Steelers 11-0 start to the season.
The Steelers passing game faced a big challenge in Week 7 with the Tennessee Titans. The Titans employed a different strategy to stop the Steelers offense, putting +1 defenders in the box and sitting on the Steelers short passing routes.
Week 7, 1st quarter, 14:56. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the top.
You can see why they would adapt to using that strategy. Here the Steelers run 4 hooks and a flat, just overloading the underneath defense to get an open player for 7 yards. This looks like a dumb play to run when you just see everyone turn and look for the ball, but it works, and plays like this are a staple of many offenses.
The Titans would end up playing a lot of cover-1 with 8 in the box, dropping the second row of 4 defenders into the short lanes, and relying on their cornerbacks to drive deep outside routes into the sideline.
Week 7, 3rd quarter, 12:02. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.
Chase Claypool draws a defensive pass interference call on this play, but look at the defense.
There is a deep safety off screen, the outside corners are manned up on their receivers, and inside the Titans run 4 defenders in a match zone to counter the Steelers short passing game. You can see the loaded box, the extra focus on the short passing game, the physical corner play and the deep safety that is in no position to offer any real help outside. The Titans knew they had to stop the underneath passing attack to have a shot at the Steelers, and they took the risk of giving up big plays or pass interference calls to do so.
It worked, because while the Steelers drew a pass interference, they couldn’t reliably connect downfield and with the short lanes clogged and receiver gaining very little after the catch, the Steelers were having trouble moving the ball. The Titans lost in Week 7 because the Steelers lit them up on third downs when the Titans would often change strategies and give up plays like this:
Week 7, 2nd quarter, 14:22. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.
Week 7, 2nd quarter, 0:57. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Both of those routes would have a defender in the way in the defense they ran most of the game. All other teams had to do was not switch out of that strategy.
It worked as Baltimore crushed the Steelers run game and short passing game by sitting linebackers in the hook zones and manning up outside with their great secondary.
The Steelers won that game in the second half by running out of empty sets and going no-huddle. The key was the empty set. When the Steelers took the running back out of the middle of the field, they got the Ravens to move defenders out of the hook zones.
Week 8, 2nd quarter, 13:33. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
A defender in the hook zone would be in the way of this pass, but the Ravens can’t put a defender in both hook zones and keep a safety deep against an empty set.
Week 8, 4th quarter, 8:18. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver off the line to the bottom of the screen.
The Steelers short passing game out of 11 personnel was in shambles. Their run game got exposed, too. Matt Canada worked the most with the run game, and as the season progressed, teams started figuring out the tricks the Steelers were using to merge Canada’s run game with Ben Roethlisberger’s passing game.
In Week 6 against the Browns the Steelers RPOs (Run Pass Options) were destroyed because they were predictable. It became clear that Ben Roethliberger was basing his decision on pre-snap reads (when you keep your head down on hand-offs to the point that you can’t see the defender you are supposed to read post-snap it is pretty obvious) and the Browns defense responded to the play by overloading the run and jumping the quick pass lanes. With the line run blocking, Roethlisberger couldn’t hold the ball and look for another receiver, he had to throw.
Week 6, 1st quarter, 1:16. Look at the pre-snap alignment and post-snap movement of the defense to the top of the screen.
The Browns knew what was coming here. They know it isn’t going to be a run, they showed the corner blitz and the rotating safety to get Roethlisberger to keep the ball, and as soon as he snaps the ball the trap is sprung. No one is defending the run, the entire defense is moving to make a play on a pass to Roethlisberger’s left (top of the screen). The batted ball at the line of scrimmage was a blessing on this play, as the cornerback is likely scoring if the ball gets past the line.
Look at Ben Roethlisberger after the play, his motion to the sideline reveals the problem of the Steelers offense this season.
The Steelers had the idea of incorporating Matt Canada’s motions and run game ideas into the offense, but with a quarterback who took more than a season to adapt to Todd Haley’s offensive changes, and an abbreviated offseason to prepare for the season, Roethlisberger and the new offensive ideas weren’t on the same page.
There’s a reason Peyton Manning took his offense with him to Denver, and a reason Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay has had to implement a lot of New England’s offensive philosophies into his offense now that Tom Brady is his quarterback. When a quarterback has learned a system and played in it long enough, changing that system isn’t easy for them. Tom Brady threw an interception in Tampa because the tight end made a sight adjustment like he was supposed to make in Arians’ offense, but Tom Brady threw the ball to where the tight end would have adjusted the route in New England’s offense. Football players aren’t thinking on the field, they act based on their training, and a highly trained player is not easy to retrain.
For the first third of the season the Steelers were making the marriage of Canada and Roethlisberger work, but defenses would gradually solve the Steelers tricks to make the two offenses work together. The RPOs were doing well until teams picked up on the pre-snap reads Roethlisberger was using, the 11 personnel set short passing game was working until Tennessee loaded the box to stop it, and the jet sweeps were really boosting the run game until teams realized the Steelers weren’t passing when they ran jet motion. Baltimore started shutting down the outside runs, but no one pounced on the jet sweep motion like the Bengals did in Week 10.
Week 10, 2nd quarter, 2:18.
When Chase Claypool goes in motion, the safety on the other side of the screen comes down to defend the sweep, while the corner that was on Claypool steps in and helps fill the run lane Conner will be heading to. They know what to expect the second Claypool comes in motion, and it isn’t a pass.
The Steelers made it through Week 10 undefeated, but teams had exposed and solved the Steelers attempt at merging two offenses that didn’t have time to merge well. By Week 10 the Steelers attempt to merge the two offenses had failed. A big reason for the failures is the pressure it put on their quarterback to learn a new offense in an abbreviated offseason when he was already faced with getting his arm back to NFL readiness and trying to build chemistry with a group of wide receivers he hadn’t worked with much.
Ben Roethlisberger is a Hall of Fame quarterback, and the best player on this Steelers team. But this crazy season hasn’t allowed the offense to transition smoothly into what the Steelers envisioned when they brought in Matt Canada. When the Steelers were forced to choose between Canada’s efforts that had revitalized the Steelers run game, and the offense the quarterback could run, they chose the quarterback. It was the obvious right decision, but it has led to teams solving the Steelers run game. As teams solved more and more of the tricks the Steelers used to try and merge the two offenses, the Steelers continued to abandon pieces of Canada’s offense and what remained became increasingly predictable.
In Part 2 we are going to look at how the depleted Ravens took apart the last bit of the Steelers offense that was still working, the empty set no-huddle offense, and how Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers are already trying to adjust.