Mike Tomlin likes to remind Steelers’ fans that style points don’t matter.
Thank God for that.
Monday night’s 29-27 win over the Chicago Bears was anything but stylish. The Steelers cruised to a 14-3 halftime lead and then fell asleep. Chicago scored 24 points and rolled up 287 yards of offense in the second half, rallying to take a 27-26 lead before Ben Roethlisberger led a final drive that resulted in Chris Boswell’s game-winning field goal in the waning moments. It was nearly a “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” scenario that would have ranked among the worst losses of the Mike Tomlin era.
Would have. The thing is, the Steelers won. It may not have felt like it, given how they struggled to close out a floundering Bears team that had lost three straight. But a win is a win. Winning games in the NFL is hard, no matter the opponent. The Steelers have won four in a row now. If the playoffs started today, they’d be in. After a 1-3 start, that’s not too shabby.
Things could get even better this week with the winless Detroit Lions coming to town. No opponent should be overlooked and no contest is an automatic win. But it stands to reason the Steelers are in strong position to improve to 6-3 as they enter the challenging second half of their schedule.
Here are some thoughts on the matchup as we get closer to kickoff.
Pittsburgh must find a way to attack the middle of the field in the passing game
The Steelers went heavy with their tight ends two weeks ago against Cleveland. One way they used them was to attack the middle of the field in the passing game. Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry combined to catch 7 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in that contest, with many of those receptions coming between the numbers. Against Chicago, that strategy all but disappeared. While Freiermuth had another solid performance, catching 5 balls for 43 yards and two touchdowns, they were mostly on flat routes or jump balls along the sideline. Third-string tight end Kevin Rader caught a flat pass for a one-yard gain (on 3rd and 2). Gentry was never targeted.
Chicago did a good job crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run. That should have provided Pittsburgh some decent play-action opportunities behind the backers or up the seam. Instead, the Steelers opted for the dink-and-dunk passing attack we saw so much of in 2020.
Take this look, which the Bears authored on the 3rd and 2 play that went to Rader for a one-yard gain. Chicago, with nine defenders within four yards of the ball, practically dared Pittsburgh to throw over the heads of the backers. The Steelers wouldn’t do it.
Perhaps, with Chicago playing so aggressively, coordinator Matt Canada was worried about protecting Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger was sacked four times, and throws to the middle of the field take longer to develop than quick ones to the perimeter. Still, given all of the man-coverage the Bears played, and the fact that crossing routes are exceptionally difficult to cover man-to-man, the Steelers wasted opportunities to attack between the numbers.
Detroit’s pass defense ranks 9th in the league in yards per game, at 244.4. While that’s respectable, the Lions are last in the league in yards-per-pass at 9.2. Those numbers seem incongruous but can be explained simply: Detroit has been outscored 126-49 in first halves this season. This means their opponents haven’t needed to throw much in second halves, reducing their total passing yardage. But, when they have thrown, they’ve made chunk plays. Detroit also ranks near the bottom of the league in sacks (29th). So, with less pressure on Roethlisberger, and a Detroit defense susceptible to big plays, it could be a great week to work the middle of the field, where those chunk plays often occur.
Canada should stay creative with the rushing attack
The rushing numbers against Chicago were mediocre. The Steelers totaled 105 yards on 32 carries for a modest average of 3.3 yards per run. Still, Canada did some nice things to create a run game on a night where the Bears’ defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers tried hard to run the ball inside, as has been their mission all season. Mostly, this was fruitless. Najee Harris carried 22 times for 62 hard-earned yards. Often, Harris was contacted at or behind the line and was forced to shrug off Chicago defenders simply to make menial gains. Rookie center Kendrick Green and rookie left tackle Dan Moore Jr. were often driven into the backfield by Chicago’s defensive linemen, leaving Harris little room to search for a cut.
Communication issues seemed to muddy the blocking assignments as well. Right guard Trai Turner was seen throwing up his hands after several plays, likely an indicator that he and his fellow linemen had miscommunicated.
Then there was the issue of Chicago putting too many defenders in the box for the Steelers to block. Here, for example, we see the safety creeping down at the snap to create a 7th run-fitter against just six Pittsburgh blockers:
The Steelers ran a trap play, with guard Kevin Dotson pulling and kicking Chicago’s left end. The safety’s fill, however, clogged the hole, forcing Harris to cut the play back. Moore, the left tackle, tried to slam down to help Green seal the 3-tech before hinging back to block the edge rusher (Robert Quinn, #94). Moore was not expecting Harris on the backside, however, and was late getting to Quinn as a result. Schemes like this, where Chicago got a +1 advantage in the box, limited Pittsburgh’s inside run game for much of the night.
Nonetheless, Canada found ways to move the ball on the ground. One way was by using his receivers as ball-carriers. Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington combined to rush 6 times for 37 yards on a variety of jet sweeps and reverses.
The first of these, on Pittsburgh’s opening drive, went to Washington. Notice how the inside zone blocking and the path of Najee Harris away from the jet motion caused Quinn, the edge player to Pittsburgh’s left, and the Chicago linebackers to false-step just enough to prevent them from tracking Washington as he turned the corner. The perimeter block from Claypool on Chicago’s corner was excellent, too.
On the following play, Canada incorporated the jet motion as a decoy and dialed up one of my favorite run-concepts. He went 21 personnel and aligned fullback Derek Watt as a wing to the left of the formation. Claypool was the motion-man this time while Watt came across and trapped the backside tackle on what is commonly known as a “wham” block. The assignments for the play are shown below:
The “wham” by Watt did two things. First, it created a cross-flow read that slowed the fill of the linebackers. With the jet motion going one way and Watt going the other, there was a lot of movement for the backers to process. This slowed their ability to get downhill, as you can see in the clip below. Second, the wham allowed the Steelers to get their linemen (Green and Turner) onto the backers quickly, rather than having them worry about chipping the defensive tackle first. Watt had a good angle on the tackle, so, while he was giving away a lot of size, he didn’t have to push the tackle off of the ball so much as get in his way:
The scheme gave Harris a clean path to the second level, where, like he often does, he took care of the rest by running through tacklers. Touchdown, Steelers.
This week, against Detroit, Canada should stay creative with his run schemes. While the Lions are yielding 134.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks 29th in the league, the Steelers aren’t good enough up front to just line up and smash them. By incorporating Canada’s signature shifts and motions, tweaking their blocking schemes and finding multiple ways to get the football to the perimeter, the Steelers can have an effective rushing attack despite their limitations along the line.
DO NOT underestimate Detroit
It’s easy to scoff at the Lions. They are 0-8, rank near the bottom of the league in nearly every meaningful metric and, just before last week’s bye, were throttled by the Philadelphia Eagles at home, 44-6.
That loss is a bit of an outlier, however. The only other game they were completely out of was a 34-11 defeat to the Bengals where they were held scoreless through three quarters before tacking on some meaningless points at the end. In most games, they’ve played hard and been competitive. They had the Ravens on the ropes back in September before yielding a 4th and 19 conversion that led to an NFL record 66-yard field goal from Justin Tucker at the buzzer to lose 19-17. A few weeks later, they suffered nearly the same fate when Minnesota’s Greg Joseph hit a 54 yarder with 0:34 left to beat them by the same score.
Their lopsided loss to Philadelphia was a product of physicality. Detroit couldn’t run the football, which allowed the Eagles to come aggressively for quarterback Jared Goff. Philly sacked Goff six times. Defensively, they couldn’t stop the run. The Eagles ran for 236 yards and four touchdowns. Philadelphia’s dominance in the trenches took the life out of a Detroit team that seemed eager to get to its bye week.
“The coaches can’t want it more than the players,” veteran defender Michael Brockers told reporters after the game. “We have to want it more.”
That kind of humiliation does not sit well with professional athletes. Detroit has had time off to stew in it. They may not have fixed everything that ails them over the bye, but one area they can address is their heart. Surely they will be challenged — by Brockers, by head coach Dan Campbell, by their coordinators — to play with greater passion and intensity. Whenever a team gets beaten up — not just beaten, but beaten up, the way Philly assaulted Detroit — a requisite amount of soul-searching is expected. As Detroit reaches its mid-way point of the season, players will be auditioning for job-security. That puts them in survival-mode, which makes them dangerous.
In the end, the Steelers should be too talented to lose to this young Detroit team. And, given the wake-up call their narrow victory over Chicago hopefully provided, there should be a fire in their bellies as well. You never know, though. It’s the NFL, and stranger things have happened. That’s why the first step towards a Steelers victory on Sunday begins with respecting their opponent.