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Autopsy Report: The death of the Steelers’ once-promising offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense is a mess, and it is time to take a look at just what is going on with Ben Roethlisberger and company.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

The Steelers offense is dead. Their first half performance against Cincinnati on Monday night marked its official passing. In one of the worst stretches of football from a Ben Roethlisberger-led unit ever, they went three-and-out on seven of eight first half possessions, turned the ball over three times and made two first downs. By halftime, they had gone three-and-out on 22 of their last 37 possessions. It was an amazing stretch of futility. Though they showed signs of life in the second half, the damage was done. Pittsburgh lost, 27-17, marking one of the worst setbacks in the Roethlisberger era.

The stunning loss to the Bengals makes three defeats in a row for the Steelers after a thrilling 11-0 start to the season. Some of their struggles can be attributed to a schedule interrupted repeatedly by league-wide Covid outbreaks and a rash of injuries on both sides of the football. The real culprit, however, is the corpse of an offense that at one point seemed vibrant and promising.

What happened? How did a unit that averaged over 30 points per game for much of the season become so ineffective in the month of December? And, more importantly, what will it take to resurrect it as the Steelers head towards the playoffs?

To answer these questions, I broke down every play from their games against Washington, Buffalo and Cincinnati to see what the Steelers had been doing and what had gone wrong. Specifically, I looked at the following categories:

  • Play type by down
  • Personnel groupings
  • Air yards per pass
  • Pre-snap movements
  • Play-action passes

The results aren’t pretty. They reveal a unit with myriad problems and a lot to fix before the post-season arrives. Here’s a breakdown:

Play Type by Down

The following chart indicates the Steelers run/pass distribution by down for the past three contests:

The chart reveals a pattern. The Steelers threw the ball on 1st down, ran it on 2nd and threw again on 3rd, particularly in first halves when they were trying to establish a run game.

Often, their 2nd down runs followed ineffective 1st down plays. The Steelers averaged just 2.6 yards per play on 1st down over the past three weeks, which put them in a lot of 2nd and long situations. Here, the Steelers often ran the ball looking to gain a few yards to create manageable 3rd downs. Unfortunately, when you’re struggling to run, as the Steelers have been, those 2nd down runs lead to a lot of 3rd-and-longs. Pittsburgh’s conversion rate on 3rd downs has been awful — they went 11-41 against Washington, Buffalo and Cincinnati— but they averaged over six yards to go in those situations. They’ve put themselves in tough spots on 3rd down with poor 1st down execution.

Moving forward, the Steelers will have to improve. They threw the ball on 1st down 73.5% of the time the past three weeks, often without much success. Will this change? Will they run the ball more on 1st down? Will they break their predictable habit of running on 2nd and long? How will they approach early downs differently? If they can get closer to four yards per play on 1st down and stay ahead of the chains, their odds of converting 3rd downs and sustaining drives will improve significantly.


Personnel groupings

The Steelers are a base 11 personnel team and relied on that grouping about 65% of the time through the first eleven games of the season. In the last three weeks, that percentage soared to 89%.

Against Washington, the Steelers employed 11 personnel 80.7% of the time. They mixed in a Jumbo package that consisted of six offensive linemen, two tight ends, a back and a receiver. They also ran a bit of 12 personnel with tight ends Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron on the field together. Neither “big” package was particularly effective, with the Jumbo group failing to score on five tries from inside the Washington two yard-line in the second quarter and the 12 grouping garnering just 13 yards on five snaps.

Against Buffalo, there was no diversity whatsoever. Of the Steelers 57 offensive snaps, they used 11 personnel on 56 of them. That’s hard to believe. There is an obvious comfort level for Roethlisberger with three receivers on the field, and the presence of a tight end gives them six in-line blockers to run the football. The Steelers got away with this approach for a while. They spread the field, lined up in static 2x2 or 3x1 sets, let Roethlisberger survey the defense and then ran a lot of picks, rubs, hitches, shallows, quick outs, receiver screens and swing routes. There were routes down the field, too, but Roethlisberger rarely threw to them.

Clearly, by the Buffalo game, defenses had caught on. They clogged the shorter passing lanes by jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage and squatted at the first-down sticks, daring the Steelers to complete throws over their heads. Roethlisberger could not.

Entering the Cincinnati game, I hoped that offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner would change things up. The 12 and Jumbo packages against Washington had been ineffective, but he had other options. There was the 01 package that was so productive in the first Baltimore game but had disappeared in recent weeks. There was a two-back grouping with Jaylen Samuels as a slot player. 10 personnel with four wide receivers. A re-imagined 12 personnel approach.

Early on Monday night, Fichtner did switch up by integrating the Jumbo and 12 groupings back into the offense. Personally, I don’t think the Steelers are physical enough up front to be an effective Jumbo team, but I do like them in 12 personnel. However, Ebron got hurt early in the second quarter, eliminating multiple tight end looks from the game-plan. From that point on, it was the same-old same-old. Fichtner ran 11 personnel on every snap from the middle of the second quarter to the final play of the game.

When the Steelers were at their best this season, 11 personnel was their base offense but not their exclusive offense. They ran it about 65% of the time but mixed in 12 (20%), 22 (6%) and their 10 and 01 groupings (5%). That diversity has disappeared. This was especially true in the second half of games the past three weeks. On 81 second-half snaps, the Steelers used 11 personnel 80 times. Talk about a lack of adjustments. It feels as though the second half approach has been to say, “Forget scheme - let’s have Ben do it.” Given how familiar defenses have become with this approach, and how poorly Roethlisberger played Monday night, this is unsustainable.

The 4th and 10 play that ended the Steelers’ hopes of a comeback late in the 4th quarter at Cincinnati typified the situation. The Steelers lined up in a 3x1 set with Diontae Johnson singled up to the short side of the field. Roethlisberger has consistently thrown to the weak side of these 3x1 looks whenever he gets a soft cushion or a favorable one-on-one matchup. Knowing this, Cincinnati pressed Johnson to give the appearance they were in single coverage. Then, at the snap, they had the corner jump outside while a linebacker fell off to defend the alley. Johnson was thus bracketed, taking away Roethlisberger’s preferred target. He was forced to come back to James Washington on the trips side, where he threw high and incomplete into a cluster of bodies:

Cincinnati felt very confident defending the Steelers on the game’s biggest play. That does not bode well for the offense.

Heading towards the playoffs, the Steelers will need a reliable alternative to their 11 personnel package. Defenses have become far too comfortable against this grouping to use it 90% of the time.


Air Yards per pass

It’s well known by now that Pittsburgh’s passing game is reliant upon short passes that get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hand quickly. How reliant are they on these throws? Take a look at their pass attempts by corresponding air yardage for the last three weeks:

80 of Pittsburgh’s 127 passes in that span traveled five yards or less. That’s 63%. Only 26% of those throws carried ten yards or more. Roethlisberger’s completion percentage on those deeper throws was under 20%. He was 1-14 against Cincinnati and 2-10 against Buffalo. The Steelers are a dink and dunk passing team and little else.

The effect of this inability to push the ball down the field is substantial. Defenses crowd the box, taking away the short throws and making it difficult to run. Chunk plays are hard to come by, forcing the Steelers to complete a succession of short passes against tight coverage to move the ball down the field. Any mistake — a missed assignment, a penalty, a dropped pass — will likely kill the drive.

The overwhelming number of downfield shots the Steelers have taken recently have been on vertical routes up the sideline. They will need to attack the middle of the field with deeper crossing or seam concepts to try to shake something loose. This will require Roethlisberger to hold the ball longer and risk taking a hit. Had he done so against Cincinnati, there were several occasions where Chase Claypool came open late in the middle of the field. A combination of play-calling, better execution and the willingness of Roethlisberger to hang in a pocket longer are all necessary to improve the deep passing game.


Pre-snap motions

Earlier in the season, new offensive assistant Matt Canada’s motion-heavy scheme seemed to have found its way into the Steelers’ game plans. The jet scheme, particularly, was both effective in getting the ball to Claypool on the edge as a sweep runner and in aiding the run game by creating window dressing to slow the reads of linebackers. The Steelers averaged 130 rushing yards per game over the first six weeks with an increased emphasis on pre-snap movement.

Then it went away. The more Roethlisberger controlled the game from the line of scrimmage, the less motion was utilized. In the last three weeks, the Steelers used motion on just 22 snaps, or 11% of their total offensive plays. Why did the motion disappear?

Likely, it’s because Roethlisberger is not comfortable with it. On Pittsburgh’s third possession against Cincinnati, the Steelers ran jet motion on what appeared to be a guard trap play to running back Benny Snell Jr. Roethlisberger seemed to rush his cadence to try to time the snap with the motion man, and in doing so he did not field the snap cleanly. The ball wound up on the ground and Cincinnati recovered, leading to their opening field goal:

Roethlisberger is an old dog and all of the pre-snap movement Canada has introduced is a new trick. It’s quite possible the use of motion has diminished at Roethlisberger’s request. This is unfortunate, because good motion teams (Kansas City, Baltimore) place a lot of stress on defenses by forcing them to make sound rotations and communicate effectively. Motions create a suddenness that makes defenses uncomfortable. There haven’t been many uncomfortable situations for opposing defenses against the Steelers lately. That needs to change.


Play-Action Pass

The thing that has frustrated me most about this Steelers’ offense is how they have failed to establish a play-action passing game. With big targets like Ebron, McDonald, Claypool and Juju Smith-Schuster, it would seem they have ideal receivers for a play-action attack. Unfortunately, they have ignored it as a part of the offense. Including RPOs, they ran seven play-action snaps the last three weeks on 180 offensive plays.

Critics might say “play action only works if you first establish a rushing attack,” but the numbers (shown in great detail here) suggest that simply isn’t true. The Steelers were effective in their very limited use of play-action against Washington and Buffalo. The numbers weren’t as good against Cincinnati, although a pivotal moment in that game came on Pittsburgh’s second drive when, on 2nd and 6 from their own 26 yard line, Roethlisberger missed a wide open Johnson off of a nice play-action fake for what would have been a big gain into Bengals’ territory. A chunk play there could have jump-started the offense and created a sense of “here we go again” in a struggling Cincinnati defense. Instead, the Steelers wound up punting the ball away in route to a disastrous first half.

Roethlisberger has expressed his discomfort with the play-action game in the past. But, with the offense struggling mightily at present, investing some time in it could shake loose some badly needed big-play opportunities.


CONCLUSIONS

The offense Pittsburgh fans came to know and love over the first ten games of the season is dead. What killed it? The culprits are many. An over-reliance on 11 personnel groupings. The scaling back of pre-snap motions. A non-existent vertical passing game. A disappearing rushing attack. A failure to convert 3rd downs (or, for that matter, win 1st downs). Injuries. Covid. Poor line play. Declining play from Ben Roethlisberger. A lack of creativity from Randy Fichtner (especially after halftime).

Can it be resurrected? That’s hard to say. It will depend upon how willing Fichtner and Roethlisberger are to leave their comfort zone and embrace something new. The Steelers will not change their identity on offense and they will likely go as far as Roethlisberger can take them. But by tweaking the scheme, mixing their groupings, stressing defenses with motion and working on a play-action game, there may still be a heartbeat. For the sake of their chances this post-season, they desperately need one.