“Hope is a good thing.” — Andy Dufresne
The Pittsburgh Steelers broke a three-game losing streak on Sunday with a 27-19 victory over the Denver Broncos. The Steelers had their best game of the season on offense, amassing season-highs in points and total yards. For the first time in 2021, they had more rushing attempts (35) than passing attempts (26) while rookie Najee Harris became the first Steelers’ back to rush for over 100 yards since James Conner did it in Week 5 of last season. It was a complete performance by a unit that has showed signs of improvement the past two weeks after a sluggish start to the season.
The offense made its biggest strides in the run game. Harris, who had been contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage more than any back in the league through the first three weeks, had ample room to run. Left tackle Dan Moore Jr, left guard Kevin Dotson, center Kendrick Green, right guard Trai Turner, right tackle Chuks Okorafor and Pittsburgh’s trio of tight ends, Eric Ebron, Zach Gentry and Pat Freiermuth, did a great job preventing penetration and pushing Denver’s front off of the football. They played with a noticeably lower pad level than in previous weeks and drove their feet better through contact. Better fundamentals often yield better results. Getting called out by Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada, both of whom are said to have challenged the line throughout the week at practice, may have helped too.
While the guys up front deserve much of the credit for the success of the rushing attack, other factors contributed as well. One was Denver’s scheme, which features a 3-4 odd front. The Steelers had seen an odd front the previous week in Green Bay and handled it well, so it was not surprising they did so again versus Denver. The odd front, as you can see in the photo below, puts just three down-linemen on the football. This provides the offense an extra “bubble,” or gap, to attack. Denver used a good amount of nickel personnel against the Steelers, swapping out a lineman for a fifth defensive back, which meant they often had just two interior players to handle run duties. This allowed the Steelers to get a better push at the first level than they had against the four-man fronts they saw in previous weeks against Cincinnati and Las Vegas:
The run game also benefitted from Canada’s game-plan. Canada did a nice job using multiple tight ends, unbalanced and compressed sets to create advantages at the point of attack and exploit the bubbles in Denver’s front.
Here’s the play Canada ran against the look above. You can see how he compressed the formation to use receivers Ray Ray McCloud (14) and Cody White (15) as extra blockers in the run game. This amounted to an eight-man line for the Steelers, which widened Denver’s front and created natural seams in the box. The Steelers ran a play called “Duo,” which creates a double-team at the point of attack. As you can see from the diagram drawn by the Fox broadcast team during the telecast, White came underneath into the C-gap to block the safety as he filled the hole. Notice the angles this scheme created for Pittsburgh’s blockers against Denver’s defenders and how the Steelers’ linemen used those angles to get movement. The hole they created was so large Harris must have thought he was back at Alabama for one of those September tune-up games against Arkansas State:
In the next clip, we see an unbalanced scheme. Canada started this play by aligning Moore in his traditional spot at left tackle. Once Denver set their front, he flipped Moore to the other side, reducing tight end Zach Gentry on the left and creating a tackles-over look on the right. This allowed the Steelers to cover up edge rusher Von Miller (58) with a lineman instead of a tight end. It also gave them an extra gap on the backside of their inside zone play. Harris found that gap, got a nice block from Juju Smith-Schuster on the alley player and rumbled for a big gain:
The run game also benefitted from Canada’s creative use of RPOs. Unlike traditional RPOs, where the quarterback reads a second-level defender like a linebacker or box-safety as a play is unfolding, Canada’s give Roethlisberger multiple pre-snap options. Roethlisberger, who famously does not like to take his eyes off of coverage during a play (thus his dislike of play-action), studies the defense prior to the snap on these RPOs and pre-determines whether he will throw the ball or hand it off. Against Green Bay, Canada paired run plays with quick-outs to the perimeter. Against Denver, he paired them with a double-slant concept.
Watch here as Roethlisberger chooses between the inside zone run to Harris or the slants to McCloud (14) and Johnson (18) on the right side of the formation. With Denver playing a cover-1 robber look and defenders locked onto both slants, Roethlisberger decides to hand the ball off. It’s a wise choice, as Harris makes a nice cut then finishes the run in typically-physical fashion:
The RPO has an added benefit here. Rather than ask McCloud and Johnson to block their defenders at the snap, which are long blocks and difficult to sustain, their slants pull the defenders inside and put them out of position against the run. Once he sees it’s a run, Johnson merely has to shield the corner to take him out of the play. The alley player, meanwhile, is no longer in position to force Harris inside to his linebacker help. He now has to chase him to the sideline, where Harris first freezes him with a stutter-step then disposes of him with a stiff-arm.
Canada used the same scheme in the previous clip with Smith-Schuster in the slot. In both instances, the Steelers got a favorable run-look and effective downfield blocks from the receivers to gain extra yardage. The displacement of the defensive backs as a result of the RPO put the receivers in better position to make those blocks.
We can’t forget, of course, the signature shifts and motions that have come to define Canada’s offense. Here we see their impact on a simple inside zone run. Canada starts this play in a 12 personnel set with tight ends Zach Gentry (81) and Pat Freiermuth (88) to the left of the formation. Once Denver declares their strength, Gentry and Freiermuth flip sides, creating an unbalanced look to the right:
The Broncos adjust by changing the strength of their defense. They bump their interior players to the shift and their linebackers swap positions. Canada then brings Smith-Schuster in jet motion from right-to-left. While Denver does not adjust their alignment to this, watch the effect it has on the inside linebackers. Both flow aggressively with the motion and the corresponding steps of the offensive linemen. This creates a cutback lane to the right of center for Harris, where the Steelers have their unbalanced look with four blockers. Harris jams the ball inside and gains seven yards:
While this might seem like a lot of work just to run an inside zone play, the stress it puts on a defense cannot be ignored. Look at all of the gesturing by the Denver defenders in these two clips. The time they must spend communicating their adjustments to the shifts and motions is time not spent focusing on their reads or simply getting lined up. The pre-snap movement also gets the defense flowing laterally, which the Steelers front uses to push them out of their gaps and create lanes for Harris.
Canada has now put enough of these motions on film to get a feel for how defenses will react to them. This was true on the goal-line against Denver. Flash back a few weeks to the Las Vegas game. Canada lined up in a compressed set and ran jet sweep to Smith-Schuster for a touchdown:
Against Denver, he used the same set and the same motion, this time with Derek Watt as the jet-man, to create enough movement from the defense to allow Harris to leap into the end zone. Watch how Denver’s safety (#22) flows with Watt just enough to keep him from plugging the gap into which Harris runs. Without the motion, Denver has an extra hat at the point of attack. With it, that advantage is eliminated.
Of course, none of this would matter if the offensive line was still getting stone-walled like it was early in the season. While facing odd-fronts the past two weeks has helped, they are becoming more physical and starting to win their one-on-one blocks. Canada’s motion helps Harris get into the end zone on the play above. But so do the blocks of Moore and Freiermuth, a couple of rookies who, along with Kendrick Green, are starting to acclimate to the speed and physicality of NFL football. Many believed it would take some time for the line to come together given their inexperience and all of the new faces. It’s still premature to say the group has arrived. To say they are improving, however, is accurate.
That improvement has had a trickle-down effect. Harris, who has been the team’s offensive MVP so far, has carried 38 times for 184 yards the past two weeks for an average of 4.8 yards per carry. That’s a huge improvement over his numbers from the first three weeks, when he went a combined 40-123-3.0. And Roethlisberger, whose struggles have been the source of much consternation throughout Steeler Nation, was sharp against Denver. Much of that had to do with the fact he was sacked just once and hit only twice. Often, he had clean pockets from which to throw and could set his feet and drive the football. Those clean pockets gave Roethlisberger the confidence to stand in when there was pressure, like on this 3rd quarter touchdown pass to Chase Claypool. Despite the fact that Turner whiffed on a twist stunt from Von Miller, Roethlisberger hung in, stepped into his throw and delivered a dart. He clearly was not concerned about the rush, something that could not be said in previous weeks.
Therein lies the bottom line for Canada’s unit. While his scheming can create mismatches and opportunities, success relies upon one simple truth: as the line goes, so goes the offense. They are by no means a finished product at this point. But they are improving. For that, Steelers fans should be hopeful.