The Steelers offense has been awful so far in the 2021 season, but in the midst of a lot of below-the-line football, there have been some moments that show the talent of the Steelers new offensive coordinator. The touchdown pass to Pat Freiermuth is one of those moments.
But to show it, we need to start earlier in the game, on the Steelers second drive, 2nd and 20. Here’s the look pre-snap:
The Steelers are in 11 personnel, with Eric Ebron to the top and all three receivers to the bottom. Right before the snap Najee Harris starts heading outside to the top of the screen. Let’s get to the actual play.
Steelers v Bengals, 1st quarter, 2:17
James Washington and Chase Claypool are both good blockers, and they win their assignments. Good reaction and closing speed from the Bengals deep safety Jessie Bates III hold the gain to three yards, and Steeler fans are likely unhappy with the result on this 1st and 20 play. There were some good things about the play. First it gave the Steelers a little breathing room and Ben Roethlisberger an easy completion, but Matt Canada had more planned, and this play was the setup.
One thing easy to miss on this play is Eric Ebron cutting behind the offensive line with Kevin Dotson leading the way. Not many teams are going to consider Eric Ebron a big risk there, he’s not exactly the biggest rushing threat.
The next time Matt Canada called this play the personnel looked a little different.
That’s a two tight end set with Eric Ebron off the field. The Steelers have been using Eric Ebron as their receiving tight end and Zach Gentry as their dedicated blocking tight end. Pat Freiermuth plays both roles, and in this formation, he’s almost certainly a blocker. Najee Harris is the big threat here. But the Steelers don’t stay in this formation.
My favorite part of this clip is when the motion is almost finished and it hits Jessie Bates III (#30). He’s seen this set up, only this time instead of three receivers to that side it’s Najee Harris with Zach Gentry as his main blocker. JuJu Smith-Schuster got three yards off this play, if they are going to stop Najee Harris from getting 4 they are going to need to be ready for it, and Jessie Bates III is letting his defense know.
One of the things I covered this summer about Matt Canada’s offense is how often he sends a disguised signal, then reveals what looks like the actual threat, only to go against the defense’s reaction. This is one of those moments. He’s sold them twice on Najee Harris being the main threat, diverted their attention from the middle to the right side of the offense and the real threat here is the only legal receiver that hasn’t moved, Pat Freiermuth.
The payoff is beautiful.
Steelers v Bengals, 2nd quarter, 1:09
The outside linebacker for the Bengals, #57, ends up making the tackle. Dan Moore Jr. gives that linebacker a shove to slow him down and that’s all Pat Freiermuth needs to get into the end zone.
I covered this play in the Vertex article Dave Schofield and I made earlier this week about Najee Harris, and you can see how much attention the Bengals pay to him after seeing a pass to that player earlier in the game.
Some other great design elements of this play is how the Steelers deal with the play side defensive end, #65. He sees Kevin Dotson coming for him, but he also sees Ben Roethlisberger heading outside, and that becomes his priority. The second he turns toward Roethlisberger Dotson turns and finds the linebacker, and the ball is tossed right past #65, eliminating him entirely from the equation. The backside defensive end is also allowed to rush free, but because he is chasing the quarterback he is also inconsequential to the play.
With an offensive line that was struggling and a passing game that wasn’t any better in tight quarters, Matt Canada had prepped and set up a play where the Steelers would essentially run Pat Freiermuth on a power off-tackle run inside the 5 yard line with the offensive line only having to block 4 defenders.
Offensive coordinators typically go into games with a couple of plays they trust to get them a few yards, to pull out when they really need it. We saw one with JuJu Smith Schuster’s touchdown run in week 2, and here we see another one. Matt Canada has shown a lot of good play design this season, even as the execution has been bad. When this team gets the line together and he isn’t relying on schemes to get around the flaws in the team it’s going to be that much better.
I don’t need to convince you that Matt Canada is a coordinator worth keeping, the Rooney’s make that decision and they know football. But hopefully these film rooms give you a little comfort when everyone starts complaining that the Steelers haven’t fired their offensive coordinator yet.
For more detail about this play, and the overall play of the Steelers vs. the Bengals, check out my latest ‘Cutting Room Floor’ podcast below: