The Baltimore Ravens were down a ton of players in week 12, but the Steelers still won by 5 points in a hard fought game, largely because the offense struggled, with three scores in ten drives, including two field goals from inside the red zone. The Steelers defense scored a touchdown and gave up two touchdowns, one of which was on a drive that started at the Steelers 16 yard line following a muffed punt.
I want to cover two things from the Steelers defense in week 12, a change in how they defended the Ravens option runs, and the play by Joe Haden and Terrell Edmunds that led to a pick-6, and then gave up a long touchdown.
Reversing course on the option
The Ravens run a variation of the Veer, the original triple option play designed to allow an offense to not block a player (or two) on the defensive line and still take that player out of the play. The version the Ravens run simplifies the play down to two options, a run up the middle or a run outside.
The Raven’s have their quarterback, typically Lamar Jackson, read the defensive end, who is intentionally unblocked. If that defensive end crashes inside to defend the inside run, Lamar Jackson keeps the ball and runs outside, if the defensive end stays wide, he hands off to the running back inside. The idea is that whatever the unblocked defender does, the offense makes it the wrong choice.
The Steelers solution has been to send that unblocked edge defender straight to the quarterback every time. Baltimore’s quarterbacks are their more dangerous runners, and you can legally make contact with the quarterback on these plays. If T.J. Watt is going to be wrong, he might as well hit the quarterback while he’s doing it.
If the rest of the defense can stop the run play without him, it works fine.
Week 8, first quarter, 12:59. T.J. Watt is the edge to the left side of the screen, Stephon Tuitt is the defensive tackle next to Watt.
I showed this play in my film room about Stephon Tuitt on Monday. You can see Tuitt split a double team from the guard and tackle, and they can double Tuitt here because Watt is unblocked. Tuitt makes the play here, but in 2019, in week 17 we saw what happens when the defensive tackle loses to the double team consistently.
2019 Week 17, 1st quarter, 4:19. Gus Edwards is the Ravens running back.
To further pour salt in old wounds, I’ll remind you that the Ravens ran for 223 yards in that game.
In week 8 of this season the Steelers beat the Ravens despite the Ravens running for 265 yards in that game after Tyson Alualu went down with injury.
The Steelers rightfully changed up their strategy for this game.
Week 12, 1st quarter, 8:22. T.J. Watt is the edge defender to the top of the screen.
For this game the Steelers asked the unblocked edge to crash inside, making the inside runs harder. But that means the defense is choosing to be wrong when the quarterback decides to keep the ball.
Week 12, 1st quarter, 7:41. The next play.
T.J. Watt crashing inside lets Robert Griffin III pick up 5 easy yards outside. It wasn’t just one run either. Griffin III and Trace McSorley rushed for a combined 84 yards, the most rushing yards the Steelers have given up to opposing quarterbacks in a game since Terrell Prior in 2013. The Ravens only ran for 129 total yards though, the fewest rushing yards the Steelers have allowed to the Ravens since Joe Flacco left the team. The Steelers have thwarted Lamar Jackson with a game plan based on throwing him off his game but giving up rushing yards, they reversed that course in this game. It will be interesting to see how they approach the Ravens run game the next time these teams meet.
Joe Haden is a gambler
Joe Haden had an enormous play in this game, putting the Steelers on the board and matching the offensive scoring through the first three quarters with this play.
Week 12, 1st quarter, 6:57. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety on that side.
Joe Haden sees the underneath receiver is going to cut outside, charges the route and picks off the pass for a touchdown. A great read and a great gamble that pays off in a big, and much needed way for the Steelers. Terrell Edmunds drops off screen at the start, but in a different camera angle you can see him heading outside to pick up Haden’s receiver running deep.
You can see Edmunds in the back, the 3 of his #34 is visible and he puts his arm up when Haden makes the pick.
Edmunds is the deep help on this play, so if Joe Haden jumps the underneath route he takes over the outside route. You may remember plays like this from last season when Joe Haden recorded 5 interceptions.
2019, Week 14, 3rd quarter, 8:13. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety to his side.
Same route combination, Haden jumps the underneath route and you can see Edmunds rushing to cover the outside receiver once he sees Haden charging the underneath route. This puts Edmunds in a tough spot, but Joe Haden is very good at reading the play and timing his attack, so it is worth the risk. In that same game against Arizona the Steelers would see this gamble go bad.
2019, Week 14, 4th quarter, 6:49. Haden is the cornerback to the right of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety.
Haden is watching the slot receiver, but the slot doesn’t cut outside. Haden’s receiver gets past him and Edmunds, not seeing Haden attack, is playing his normal zone. Edmunds infamously misreads the ball in the air and the Cardinals score a touchdown.
It went bad this Wednesday too.
Week 12, 4th quarter, 2:58. Joe Haden is the cornerback to the top of the screen, Terrell Edmunds is the deep safety to his side.
Joe Haden jumps the underneath route, but third string quarterback Trace McSorley is waiting for it. As soon as Haden steps up, letting Marquise Brown go behind him, McSorley throws the ball. Edmunds is rushing to get to the play and overshoots the tackle, and all that is left is for Minkah Fitzpatrick to get spun around by Brown, and the Ravens have a 70 yard touchdown.
While both touchdowns look bad for Edmunds, there are a large number of plays where this strategy works, and they don’t go to it all the time either, we just have two examples of Haden looking for that interception one time too many in the same game.
Poorly played games happen, and they happen more often when those games involve unusual timing. Thursday night games, the games when the NFL played in London, and now, a Wednesday, after school special timed game.
It is fitting that in a game where the Steelers offense looked more like the 2019 edition of the Steelers, the defense played like their 2019 version as well, giving up one bad touchdown, and one touchdown following a turnover deep in their own territory but scoring one of their own, while overall playing really strong defense. Let’s hope the Steelers put 2019 behind them again as they move on to face The Football Team from the District of Columbia on Monday.