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The Browns showed the Steelers the keys to a better offense

Kevin Stefanski’s offense is the one the Steelers wanted to run, and it works.

Carolina Panthers v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns were a top 10 offense this season, and in the Wild Card win over the Steelers they again showed why they are successful. Kevin Stefanski has gotten a lot of credit for his teams improved offense, especially in the effectiveness of his quarterback Baker Mayfield. Watching the Browns beat the Steelers, I was struck by how similar the Steelers and Browns offenses are. The concepts are very similar and the way they attack space are similar.

Since the game I took a hard look at the differences in the two offenses, and there’s a few things the Steelers should be able to implement with either Ben Roethlisberger or Mason Rudolph playing quarterback.

1st quarter, 10:44. Watch the tight end to the top of the screen who pinches inside a bit right before the snap.

One of the staples in the Browns offense is play action. Baker Mayfield does great on these play action bootlegs, just not against the Steelers. The Steelers have to be ready for the run, and the Browns slip a tight end out, but the play isn’t there because of how the Steelers use Minkah Fitzpatrick to bracket with a linebacker in coverage. This time Robert Spillane (LB to the top, just inside the CB) meets the tight end, and then follows the roll out in a trailing zone, running underneath the route Mayfield wants to target. Mayfield would have to throw the ball over Spillane, with Fitzpatrick closing. That is an unwise throw, so Mayfield throws the ball away.

I wanted to bring up play action, because the Steelers tried using play action this season in Week 15, and it boosted the run game, but Ben Roethlisberger played a terrible game, because he isn’t good when he takes his eyes off the play for that long.

1st quarter, 10:37.

This is just a bunch of hooks with one deep route. A play the Steelers run quite a lot, it is a staple play in most NFL offenses as a simple way to gain some yards. The Browns run this out of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE), and sent Nick Chubb out wide. The Steelers brought in Eric Ebron to play with Vance McDonald this season, setting up more 2 tight end sets, and like most parts of the offense, it worked well early on.

1st quarter, 5:58.

This play starts with trips to the bottom of the screen, before the Browns motion Donovan Peoples-Jones out wider. That just dresses up a double screen play, again something the Steelers ran a good bit.

1st quarter 9:55 watch the bottom of the screen.

This is a simple drag route from Peoples-Jones, while Jarvis Landry runs a slant behind it. Two things made this play work. First the threat of a run has Minkah Fitzpatrick up tight to the line before he drops, if he’s a few steps farther back this throw doesn’t work, and because the motion right before the snap has the cornerbacks moving to get out of each other’s way at the snap. Both Peoples-Jones and Landry are open, largely because of that motion creating a bit more space for both because the cornerbacks are moving at the snap.

1st quarter, 5:12. watch the bottom of the screen.

Look at Steven Nelson at the snap, he’s backing up. Rashard Higgins utilizes that by driving hard right at him before cutting outside for a first down. Before the snap Nelson is right on Higgins, ready to contest his release. The motion from Landry drives him off his mark and gives Higgins the advantage. It isn’t a huge advantage, but football is a game of inches, and it was those inches that won this play.

What did those four plays have in common? Motion. All of them used motion. The Browns offense uses motion constantly. They don’t use Matt Canada’s college motion where three players swap positions, they didn’t use jet motion, they just send a player in motion most snaps. It isn’t Baker Mayfield deciding to change a play, it’s designed into the offense. That double screen was designed to be run with a receiver out wide, they just lines up in trips to take advantage of the motion.

The Steelers used motion a lot early in the season. Through 5 weeks the Steelers were the tenth best rushing team, in total yards and in yards per carry (if you remove their league leading 10 QB kneel downs in 5 games). The entire offense was better because of it. Through 5 weeks the Steelers ranked 8th in one of my favorite metrics, scoring percentage minus turnover percentage. From Week 8 on, they ranked 23rd. From week 6-8 the Steelers opponents figured out the Steelers were running the ball with motion, but not throwing it.

Think about that considering what the Browns offense showed. When the motion was removed the Steelers run game fell to the worst in the league, from top ten to worst. The Browns passing offense that was essentially the same as the Steelers was better because it used motion. The problem with the Steelers offense this year was they couldn’t use that motion with Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball.

There is another key difference though. Before I get into it I need to stop here and give credit to K.T. Smith who has preached that the Steelers need more motion in their offense for a while now.

He also has gone back and forth with me about the Steelers running backs, I am of the opinion that James Conner is an equivalent runner to Kareen Hunt, but K.T. Smith says his vision isn’t the best, and it hurts the run game. Watching the Browns this past week, I have to agree.

1st quarter, 7:07. Nick Chubb is the running back.

Man it would be great to have a Nick Chubb. That is the kind of running we saw from Jerome Bettis in his prime. James Conner doesn’t have runs like that on film. Chubb sees and navigates the tiniest lanes. Sure, he’s a beast to bring down and a yards after contact monster, but it is his vision and ability to navigate tight lanes that makes him great. He breaks one tackle on this play, and he only has a small crease.

So yeah, running back could be a big upgrade, if the Steelers find a truly great talent. I’m not sold on the idea that the guys we have aren’t any good, we just don’t have a great runner. And again, they were top ten before the motion that was helping the run game turned into a key teams used to tee off on the run.

It would be awesome to get runs like the one above, but even for Nick Chubb, most of the runs look more like this.

3rd quarter, 14:17. Nick Chubb is the running back.

-OR-

Those are comparable runs. Both have an easy to see hole, both hit that hole and take what the defense gives them.

The Browns offensive line gets a lot of credit, but watching their film I don’t see a lot of difference between their line and the Steelers line. The Browns struggled mightily when guard Wyatt Teller was out (10-2 with Teller, 2-3 without), and the Steelers struggled mightily when J.C. Hassenhauer was forced to play (1-4 with Hassenhauer playing, 11-1 without him playing).

If you watch the games from week 12-15 you can see the problem, Hassenhauer was getting driven back into the pocket, putting pressure in Ben Roethlisberger’s face for most of the game. In Week 15 the Steelers used a lot of play action to help slow down the defense, and the run game rebounded even with Hassenhauer playing.

The Steelers offense had a top ten rushing attack until teams figured out the Steelers were using motion almost entirely on run plays. With that rushing attack they were a highly efficient offense, scoring at a pretty good rate while rarely turning the ball over. Even with Ben Roethlisberger showing a bit of rust and trying to develop chemistry with his receivers the offense worked and the team won.

When the team couldn’t boost the run game with motion the offense fell apart, the run game fell to the worst in the NFL, defenses could rush the quarterback more freely and turnover rate rose while scoring fell to below average rates.

The Steelers aren’t going to be able to add play action to a Ben Roethlisberger led offense, at least not the plays where the quarterback turns away from the field. Ben Roethlisberger showed significant growth in his ability to run RPOs as the season went on, something he was absolutely terrible at early on.

If Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey return, or even if the Steelers turn the offense over to Mason Rudolph, there is hope that the offense could be a top ten offense next season.

It would take an offseason where Ben Roethlsiberger or Mason Rudolph learns to use motion in the passing game, the kind you see Baker Mayfield using in this film room. If that happens the Steelers can use motion in their run game as well, and that would fix a lot of the problems in this offense.

It would also free the Steelers to use a high draft pick on a running back with elite vision, or if Conner isn’t expensive to re-sign, a top offensive lineman to improve those holes even more.

Ben Roethlisberger is a much better quarterback right now than Baker Mayfield is. The problem is his offense is well knows and teams know how to solve it. Matt Canada was brought in to add motion to that offense the way Kevin Stefanski revitalized the Browns offense with motion, but it didn’t work because Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t use it well. If that changes, this team could compete for the AFC North title again, and make a legit playoff run in the 2021 season.